Australia is currently getting a wake-up call about the risk of war right in the centre of the East Asian industrial network driving its prosperity.
The Korean peninsula attracts minimal attention in Australia's security considerations. North Korea got only two lines of comment in the Gillard government's recent white paper Australia in the Asian Century, which also dropped Korean as a priority language for our schools. The 2009 Defence White Paper gave some space to the threat to Australia of nuclear proliferation by North Korea and the possibility of conflict on the peninsula but suggested 'other scenarios' were much more likely.
Australia's defence and security policy framework assigns limited importance to conflict on the Korean peninsula in assessing threats to Australia. This reflects an underestimation of the importance of a stable Korean peninsula for Australia's future and highlights a significant weakness in Australia's defence and security planning.
The so-called 'other scenarios' should be of interest to Australia's defence planners. Threats to Australia emanate not only from the conventional and nuclear capabilities of North Korea, but non-traditional security threats presented by the decaying and corrupt North Korean political, economic and social system.
Political change in North Korea will bring significant instability to South Korea and the broader Northeast Asian region. Such change could result from various developments: the collapse of the North Korean government, gradual political and economic decay, reform and opening initiated by Pyongyang, weapons proliferation by the North, a move by South Korea to obtain a nuclear capability, or conflict between Japan and North Korea.
Conflict, collapse or other events on the Korean peninsula would have immediate impact on Australia.
Even without being drawn directly into a war between North and South, the economic effect would be huge. South Korea is Australia's third largest export market and fourth largest two-way trading partner, not to mention indirect effects from disruption of its trade with China and Japan.
Australia's interest would lie in the swift and effective restoration of peace and stability. The participation of the ADF in such efforts would be inevitable.
Another danger could come from criminality on the part of the existing regime or other groups within North Korea that might seek to profit from selling weapons and other contraband to governments and groups adverse to Australia's interests.
A further crisis would call on Australia to join an international effort to meet the vast and acute humanitarian needs of North Korea's 23 million people. This would be accompanied by large outflows of refugees, and biohazards like the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis highly prevalent in North Korea.
The 2009 Defence White Paper did recognise that the collapse of the North would require 'deft management by the Korean people, but also by the major powers of the region…All states would have a common interest in assisting the Korean people to successfully manage any reunification of the peninsula'.
Given Australia's economic reliance on Korea, its historic precedent of involvement on the peninsula and its growing status as an Asian nation, our role in any peace-keeping, humanitarian or stability-promoting exercise would not be insignificant.
Our defence and foreign policy planners would be wise to build up the knowledge and language skills that these contingencies would call upon, and develop understanding with US, Chinese, South Korean and Japanese counterparts to reduce the dangers of miscalculation.
Australia has an unusual regional position holding diplomatic relations with both North and South Korea. If Canberra wants to have a stake in the future of the Korean peninsula and the wider Asian region, a direct diplomatic presence in Pyongyang is essential. Australia should also encourage the re-establishment of the North Korean embassy in Canberra.
Dr Emma Campbell is the Korea Institute Postdoctoral Fellow in the Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific.
This article is edited from a paper in the “Centre of Gravity” series of the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.