Why This Time is Different: The North Korea Crisis and New Zealand’s Interests

Author: Steff, R.
Published in National Security Journal, 09 April 2020

reinstatement of a Cabinet position of Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control (which the previous National government had disestablished in 2011).

New Zealand’s security and prosperity would be threatened by conflict on the peninsula or a rapid cascade of nuclear proliferation across the region.9 During a conflict that involved New Zealand’s friend and allies, New Zealand would be expected to play a role – potentially through a military contribution to a US or UN-led coalition effort to disarm the DPRK, and then provide humanitarian and potentially peacekeeping assistance in the aftermath of a devastated Korean peninsula. The safety of New Zealand’s citizens in Korea would be immediately placed at risk in a conflict, and global trade damaged. Depending upon how it unfolded, a confrontation on the peninsula even runs the risk of pitting the US and China against one another, with either side expecting other states to support their respective positions. Given New Zealand’s close security relationship with Washington and high-level of trade with China, this could place New Zealand in a dilemma over who to support (or whether to try remaining neutral, which would have its own risks).10

Furthermore, New Zealand needs to bear in mind the expanding range of North Korea’s missiles, such as the Hwasong 14 and 15 that suggest Australia (a nation New Zealand is obligated to assist the defence of in a conflict) could now be in range of DPRK missiles. Eventually, its missiles may even be able to reach New Zealand, while a nuclear detonation elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean could have consequences for fishing and sea life, the climate and New Zealand’s economy if ocean-borne travel was affected.11 Are these threats hypothetical? It no longer appears so. In 2017, Pyongyang issued threats at Australia for supporting the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy and stated they were considering testing a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific in response to President Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” the country.12

Additionally, events in Ukraine since late 2013 provide a cautionary tale of how a geo- graphically distant crisis can affect New Zealand interests. In short, after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine (in response to an uprising there that deposed pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych) and emergence of a Russian-backed rebellion in eastern Ukraine, the European Union and Russia imposed sanctions on one