A Korean Season of Summitry

16 May 2018

It is the season of summitry on the Korean peninsula. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has met with Xi Jinping in Beijing, as well as Moon Jae-in at an inter-Korean summit in the lead up to a possible meeting with US President Donald Trump. Japan wants in too, and all this talk on the Korean peninsula has raised hopes that North Korea could move towards denuclearisation, and potential peace with its southern neighbour.

It could all go one of two ways, according to Dr Brendan Taylor, one of the chief investigators at a recent Australia-Korea Foundation policy roundtable hosted by ANU in March. “One possibility is that this doesn’t really amount to much and the Korean peninsula remains in a stalemate, a very uneasy standoff,” he says. “Another possibility is that we’re at one of those really important historical moments, a key inflection point, around the geopolitics of the Korean peninsula.”

The stakes are high for Australia, as Taylor and his co-authors explore in a Centre of Gravity paper revealing the roundtable’s outcomes. The Korean peninsula is in Northeast Asia, where three out of four of Australia’s largest trading partners are located. It is a region any Australian government would like to see remain stable. “If there was any major disruption in that part of the world it could potentially trigger an economic recession here, a long economic recession,” Taylor says. “That is something that should be focusing the minds of everyday Australians.” For its part, the Australian government is sticking to international efforts to find diplomatic solutions on the Korean peninsula, mostly by way of supporting the maximum pressure campaign of sanctions, led by the USA.

But the question Australia needs to ask, Taylor prompts, is what’s next? “Australia needs to think in very broad terms, in much longer terms than we’re currently thinking, about what could be the outcome of the series of summits taking place.” An overarching concern is whether Australia would be obliged to join an outbreak of conflict due to its ANZUS alliance or involvement in the Korean War armistice. These concerns feed into national anxieties of a perceived decline in Australia’s regional influence. Taylor sums it up: “Increasingly, as our size diminishes relative to some of the other players in the region, and as our influence diminishes, the question is what really can Australia do?”

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