26 September 2017




JEREMY FERNANDEZ: Tonight – tensions between North Korea and the US are continuing to escalate with Donald Trump expanding his controversial travel ban to include North Koreans. The move comes after Pyongyang sent an open letter to several international parliaments condemning the US President’s address to the UN General Assembly last week in which he threatened to, in his words, totally destroy North Korea. North Korea, in turn, called Trump’s comments an intolerable insult.

The Labor Party’s Foreign Affairs Spokeswoman Penny Wong is currently in Seoul with the Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, for talks on the issue. She spoke with me earlier this evening.

Senator Wong thanks for joining us. Australia’s space sector has been relatively neglected for so long, why this sudden focus on space when there are perhaps more pressing concerns?

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: It’s not a sudden focus from the Labor Party’s perspective. In fact Labor went to the last election with a similar policy. Kim Carr has been talking about the importance of the space industry for some time. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry internationally and I think this is a step in the right direction that the Government is actually focusing on it.

There’s precious little detail in their announcement and I hope there will actually be some meat on the bones of what the policy actually will mean in the very near future.

FERNANDEZ: You’ve just had meetings with South Korea’s Prime Minister and the former UN Secretary-General and it seems that he threat posed by North Korea has pervaded a lot of these discussions?

WONG: North Korea is the greatest risk to global security, to regional security; it’s a risk to all nations. But those who face the most immediate risk are South Korea and Japan. And that’s why it is so important that Bill Shorten and I are here to demonstrate the bipartisan support for these relationships, bipartisan support for the work the international community is doing to put pressure on North Korea and to resolve this critical situation peacefully.

FERNANDEZ: The UN Security Council approved new rounds of sanctions earlier this month. China is also exercising its considerable influence by cutting off supplies, particularly oil. How great is the impact likely to be?

WONG: This is a good step that the UN Security Council has increased sanctions and it is particularly pleasing to see not only China’s continued support for these UN Security Council resolutions, but for consequential action as a result.

We do know that China has a particular relationship with North Korea and it, along with the rest of the international community, should continue as they are doing which is to put pressure on the regime. A regime which is quite prepared to violate international law, to violate UN Security Council resolutions and as I said at the outset, we all know that they pose the greatest risk to peace and security in our region and indeed globally.

FERNANDEZ: The exchanges between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have become increasingly bitter and personal as well. The Russian Foreign Minister likens it to a schoolyard fight. What’s your assessment of the tone of these exchanges and what they indicate about how fed up each of these leaders are?

WONG: I think it’s very important in a situation like this to focus on what we need to try and achieve. We need continued pressure on the regime, on North Korea, to try and deviate them from the path they’re currently on. We need to ensure we work diplomatically and economically to de-escalate tension. And we most importantly need the international community to work together and that is what is occurring.

And, as I said earlier, I think it is a very good thing that we see continued action from China, including most recently.

FERNANDEZ: But it is true that diplomacy has so far only achieved so much? There’s been unprecedented progress this year in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the US mainland is said now to be within reach. How much more diplomacy is there in this?

WONG: I don’t think anybody who engages seriously with the current crisis on the Korean peninsula would suggest there are any easy solutions. There is no quick answer.

This is a problem that’s been developing for years and we have a regime which is really unprecedented in terms of its willingness not only to violate international law and resolutions of the Security Council, but has gone further than any nation has and that is to directly threaten the use of nuclear weapons in the way they are doing.

So I don’t think anybody suggests that diplomacy is easy, that sanctions are easy. But what we do know is we have to continue to work as an international community to put pressure on this regime and we also know we have to do all that we can to find a diplomatic resolution to this because the alternatives are very difficult to contemplate.

FERNANDEZ: Where is the evidence the sanctions are working? What signs are you looking for?

WONG: Look, it’s difficult to see in to a regime which is as closed and as hardline in its rhetoric as they are. But what we do know is that the international community can put pressure on North Korea. We need to do that. And we also know that China is in a position to place greater pressure than many other nations because of its particular relationship. And we know China, to its credit, is cooperating in the UN Security Council and has recently implemented those sanctions, including in relation to both imports from, and exports to, North Korea.

Now this is important. Sanctions aren’t the only thing you need. You also need political pressure. You need diplomatic pressure as well. But it is important that China is acting in the way that it is.

FERNANDEZ: You’ve been reluctant to speak about the prospects of military conflict but given Donald Trump is now speaking in very militaristic terms, does it sharpen your view about the role Australia would and should play?

WONG: Well, I don’t think people in positions of – in my position, or in the position of someone like the Foreign Minister Bishop or Minister Payne – should be speculating on hypotheticals. I think Secretary Mattis was right when he talked about the consequences of military action.

I’m here in South Korea with Bill and you only need to speak to people here to understand the immediate risk that they face. So I think it is important not to engage in hypotheticals.

FERNANDEZ: Are the actions that we’re seeing from the US and the language provocative and ultimately helpful or unhelpful?

WONG: I think the US is expressing the view that the world has, that this regime does pose a threat, a risk to global security. But rather than get into commentary about who said what, we need to focus on the fundamentals here and they are as I’ve outlined. We need continued pressure on the regime, we need the international community to work together. We need to work in a united way to de-escalate and to resolve this peacefully.

FERNANDEZ: What sort of commitments is South Korea seeking from the Labor Party in terms of support or should the Labor Party be in government if a conflict were to break out?

WONG: The leaders we’ve met today I think are seeking continuity in terms of the bilateral relationship. That’s why it is important for us to be here, to demonstrate continuity, to demonstrate bipartisan support, and to demonstrate our keenness to understand from their perspective their assessment of the current crisis, the current issues that they are facing. And how the world might best deal with what is a very difficult situation.

But bipartisan support for the relationship, bipartisan support for regional stability, those are important principles. What happens here, what happens in North Asia matters to Australia. It matters to us. It matters in terms of both regional stability but also Australia’s security.

FERNANDEZ: You’re heading to the demilitarised zone tomorrow. What are you hoping to achieve there?

WONG: I’ve not been there before. Obviously it is good to see first-hand the situation. Just as it’s good to engage with the US military who are obviously auspicing that visit, as well as the meetings we’ve had today with the Prime Minister and members of Congress and the Governor.

I think it’s very good to gain a firsthand understanding of the perspective of South Koreans on the current issues facing them.

FERNANDEZ: Senator Penny Wong, thanks for joining us.

WONG: Good to be with you.