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Published in CRIKEY 17 April 2013

Australia is in a unique position to show leadership and initiative on the vexed question of North Korea. Using the influence that membership of the Security Council offers, Australia might seek to broker an ongoing UN based dialogue between the United States, China, South and North Korea and Japan.

Australia has a respected record within the international community for addressing and negotiating outcomes on difficult issues. These cover a range of matters, including nuclear proliferation, law of the sea, the Antarctic, apartheid, the environment and the visit to China in 1971 by Gough Whitlam, which helped pave the way for other western states to end China’s international isolation.

America is as much the problem as it is a solution in seeking resolution to the ongoing tensions on the Korean peninsula. Since the end of WWII the United States has relied on the threat of military force and the use of military force to underpin its diplomacy. As a result, the subtle art of negotiation, networking and the development of relationships has not flourished to the extent it might have had America not had so much wealth and raw power at its disposal. American diplomats exude a charm designed to deflect intimacy and defuse difficult dialogue, they were once adept at dealing with fawning foreigners, the times are changing but their diplomatic skills such as they were have not changed.

North Korea gives America cover for deploying sophisticated weaponry close to China. South Korea is a beneficiary of the American presence and limited largesse, but whilst it seems to understand the posturing of its neighbour, would, nonetheless, like to see a lessening of northern hysteria and a gradual normalisation of the relationship. Anything too rapid would swamp its economy.

China has moved on. It understands and can deal with its hyper-active little neighbour, but it has bigger fish to fry and does not want North Korea taking advantage of any move it might make to secure a pre-planned position in the region.

Japan is fed up with North Korea and China; it seeks certainty and predictability from its neighbours.

The family run, despotic, dictatorship, recently inherited by Kim Jong Un following the death of his father Kim Jong-iL, is noted for its human rights abuses and slavish forced obedience to the state by the much abused citizens of the Orwellian night-mare that is North Korea today. The founding grand- father Kim ll-sung is today given religious status by the military dominated communist party.

At the time Whitlam made his famous foray into the middle kingdom, it was a dark and tortured communist state, just emerging from the bloody and cruel Cultural Revolution instigated by the founding father, Mao Zedong, as a means of retaining his hold over the state.

Following the Whitlam visit, China slowly and unevenly began the process of engagement with the rest of the world and of modernisation of industries and cities. Over time it adopted many of the features of capitalism whilst retaining a central, single party, communist state.

Maybe with the right sort of diplomacy, North Korea, might be gradually induced toward more positive engagement towards it neighbours and the rest of the world. The place to start might well be the Security Council. Anything to do with diplomacy and North Korea is high risk, but Australia once had a capacity to undertake creative and front footed diplomacy. It is worth a try and there is not a lot for Australia to lose should it not produce results and a lot to be gained if it does.

North Korea is like the pound dog, there is little to be gained by kicking it when it bites or barks. It needs to learn some new responses through rewards rather than attempting to match its own bad behaviour. Rewards have been tried before but without dialogue.

The big stick has been wielded until it only provokes bared teeth and a frantic straining at the leash. North Korea has been subject to 14 adverse Security Council Resolutions, a record close to that of Apartheid South Africa.

Australia might institute, through the Security Council, a permanent forum for dialogue on an as needs, ad hoc basis, for discussion to occur even when a crisis is not underway. Australia needs to also concentrate efforts on the United States, seeking to curb its aggression and posturing, not only with respect to North Korea but also Iran. Sadly for the United States it has little concept on how other states view it. Additionally it finds it very hard to process criticism. Australia has a role in helping to protect the United States against itself.

Using the Security Council as a base of authority and as a means of expressing leadership, Australia might seek to engage members of the General Assembly on the issue on an ongoing basis. Although North Korea engages in posturing it would take very little for a miscalculation to occur and for an exchange of arms to spiral out of control and wind back.

Naturally South Korea and Japan would need to be engaged in close dialogue, but in this process China would need to be a close ally of Australia – and no bad thing for our relationship with both America and China. It would serve to demonstrate to the US that whilst we have their best interests at heart we are not a mere cipher of their greater aims and ambitions.

The world has a choice – more of the same or a North Korea gradually brought into the community of nations.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.