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New thinking needed for volatile North Korean issue

Latest 'Conversation with the Archbishop' tackles North Korea, China and Australia in the age of Trump

By Chris Shearer

December 14 2017

Russia, rather than China, is more likely to broker discussions between North Korea and the United States, says former Foreign Minister Bob Carr.

He noted that while China and North Korea were “in theory allies”, leader Kim Jong-Un and Xi Jinping had never spoken, and Chinese academics had told him their country had warmer relations with all of their other 13 border neighbours.

“I think China has no influence with North Korea,” he said in the final “Conversations with the Archbishop” of 2017 at Deakin Edge, Federation Square.

Professor Carr, now professor of international relations with the University of Technology, Sydney, was discussing “North Korea: the coming Armageddon?” with University of NSW foreign affairs specialist and Melbourne Anglican Dr Sally Burt and Melbourne Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier.

The event began just as news broke that North Korea had test fired a new intercontinental ballistic missile which experts believed could strike anywhere in the United States.

Dr Freier told moderator and former ABC radio presenter John Cleary that he’d been motivated to choose this topic because new solutions to the brewing crisis on the Korean Peninsula were needed overcome a complacency that had grown since the end of the Cold War.

“It’s often that case that the old ways simply aren’t fit for the purpose that a new situation, a new threat, proposes,” he said.

“I’d like to see the reinvention of our approach to things just on the basis of some very ordinary human values, about seeing people’s lives prosper. What would be wrong in developing a policy to North Korea that was not more harshly punishing the ordinary people, but seeing their lives be more tolerable?”

Dr Freier said that even though North Korea was an avowedly atheist nation, faith could play a role in winding back tensions. He noted that Japanese Christian theologian Kosuke Kayama had reflected that Asian leaders seeking power often conferred a form of divinity on themselves in order to seem unaccountable to the general populace, while under Christianity all people were answerable to God.

“We probably need more understanding, not the clash of civilisations,” he said. “I think this is where theory and religion properly engaged in the discussion and the debate, bring some understanding, because at some very key points, the principles, the legitimation, the way a society operates, are affected by beliefs either articulated or unarticulated.”

Dr Burt said she was somewhat pessimistic about a peaceful outcome, but was optimistic that there “was still room to change the game”.

“Although I can see great opportunities through mistake or intention ending up down a path of conflict and pre-emptive strikes, I think and hope and can be optimistic that there are enough hurdles to that that somewhere along the line the chain can be broken.”

But she added that Australia ran the danger of relying on the United States through sheer familiarity, and unwillingness to recognise the Asian century.

“We need to be a bit more creative about the way we think about the world and about how we operate in a new foreign policy paradigm,” she said.

Professor Carr also warned that Australia risks “incinerating” its relationship with China in its attempts to impress an exhausted and increasingly isolationist United States.

He said all comments this year about China from the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister had been negative, saying: “I don’t know why we feel we have to impress Washington by almost incinerating our relationship with China.”

The United States we were familiar with, he said, was “exhausted, in retreat from power, and now saying ‘America first’. The next President could be Bernie Sanders, a left-wing isolationist. America is not going back to normal,” he said.

“Whenever his generals or cabinet secretaries behave in an orthodox fashion, Donald Trump is likely to descend as an avenging angel from the clouds, flinging tweets in all directions.”