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Korea: The next hotspot?  

Published 02 May 2024

On Tuesday the 16th of April, Dr Duyeon Kim and Richard Broinowski addressed AIIA NSW about the current position of the Korean Peninsula on the world stage and the potential risk of conflict between North and South Korea. Dr Kim drew on her knowledge as an adjunct senior fellow at the Indo-Pacific Security Program of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) with expertise including nuclear non-proliferation, the two Koreas and East Asian relations. Mr Broinowski is the immediate past president of AIIA NSW and a former ambassador to South Korea, and called upon his diplomatic experience and knowledge of arms proliferation to address the likelihood of a new Korean war.

Dr Kim’s opening remarks stressed the significance of the relationship between North and South Korea on the world stage. North Korea’s increasingly aggressive behaviour includes a record-breaking number of missile tests and Kim Jong Un ‘upping his rhetoric’ about perfecting tactical nuclear weapon technologies. This carries security concerns for South Korea and its allies against a complicated geopolitical backdrop – with Kim Jong Un strengthening North Korea’s relationship with China, Iran and Russia, it is clear that the development of nuclear weapons has implications for global proliferation. Dr Kim referred to Russia’s use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, discussing how the rhetoric of a leader such as Putin surrounding nuclear use and proliferation could embolden Kim Jong Un to behave in a similar way.

Dr Kim noted that the current South Korean government has taken a harder line than its predecessor in its relations with North Korea, focussing on deterrence of a North Korean attack and strengthening its own defences. Regarding potential causes of war, Dr Kim discussed the risk of misperception or miscalculation from either side as the primary concern of experts in the area. She assessed that Kim Jong Un is not a ‘suicidal leader’ and would not engage first, wanting to prioritise the preservation of his dynasty. Rather, a miscalculated move from one side could spark retaliation from the other, a danger further complicated by North Korea’s unwillingness to talk to South Korea about risk reduction.

Mr Broinowski and Dr Kim further discussed the geopolitical landscape and its tensions, including the role of China. Dr Kim laid out how North Korea has allied with China and Russia while South Korea, the USA and Japan were strengthening relations. Mr Broinowski emphasised how China’s role as a ‘protector and mentor’ of North Korea has exacerbated tensions in US relations with both countries. Regarding the possibility of unification, Mr Broinowski suggested that progress could be made if the USA was willing to meet with North Korea without requiring nuclear non-proliferation. Dr Kim focussed on the prospect of reunification as a strategic tool of the North Korean administration in justifying its control of its own people and rejecting South Korean cultural influence.  Mr Broinowski noted the usefulness of previous attempts to foster economic, industrial and technical exchanges between the two Koreas.

Audience members asked how the possibility of a second Trump presidency in the US this year could influence the behaviours of both North and South Korea. Dr Kim affirmed that South Korea was preparing for a potential shift, and that this involved concerns about US commitment to the defence of South Korea in the case of an attack. She also highlighted how this scenario would be dependent on how a second Trump administration would differ from his first presidency, as a cabinet of loyalists would have strong influence on his diplomatic choices. Regarding the possible role of Australia during a potential conflict, Mr Broinowski argued that a better Australian understanding of the situation was needed before any decision to ‘go in or stay out’ was made.

Both Dr Kim and Mr Broinowski emphasised the importance of relations between North and South Korea to a number of other countries, including Australia. Amidst rising tensions and an increasingly complicated geopolitical landscape, it is clear that governments must act carefully and cautiously when making diplomatic decisions concerning the Korean Peninsula.

Report by Isabella Crowe, AIIA NSW intern

Dr Duyeon Kim (centre) with panelist Richard Broinowski (right) and AIIA President Ian Lincoln (moderator)