The closest I have ever come to claiming predictive powers was on August 30th 1998. At the time I was the Associate Director of a euphemistically-named Program on Conflict Resolution at the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington DC. We were hosting then North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye-Gwan and on a beautiful late summer afternoon we took him and his delegation to Great Falls Park Virginia to share a picnic lunch. As we conversed, I observed that the traditional name of North Korea “Chosun” which means “Morning Calm” was a misnomer. Curiosity aroused, he asked me what I meant and I explained that during nearly a decade of working on Korea from Washington DC the time difference meant that every morning when I awoke I was greeted by some new crisis or development on the Korean Peninsula…hence my suggestion that instead of the “land of the morning calm,” a more appropriate name for Korea would be the “land of the morning surprise.” We laughed, and I would not have not thought about it further, but the next morning we awoke to news that overnight North Korea had tested a Taepodong missile over Japan setting in play a rolling crisis related to North Korea's missile program that continues today.
Almost 19 years later to the day on 29 August 2017 North Korea tested a Hwasong-12 ballistic missile over the Japanese Island of Hokkaido, this time forgoing the pretence that it was a satellite launch. Japanese citizens awoke to the sound of warning sirens and emergency text messages and a heightened sense of vulnerability. With the increasing range of North Korea’s missiles and a sixth nuclear test on Sunday 3 September, that sense of vulnerability will increasingly influence public opinion in South Korea, Japan, the United States and even in ostensibly-allied China it will add a new layer of complexity to an already complex problem.
The intense international attention that the world continues to pay North Korea is understandable and appropriate given the gravity of developments, yet it is also turbo-charged by the colourful and oddly comparable personalities and language of the two most vocal antagonists in Pyongyang and Washington D.C. The challenge is that the newsworthy events on the Korean Peninsula obscure developments elsewhere which are arguably more important and possibly more dangerous in the longer term. The border standoff between China and India, related to the disputed Doklam region in Bhutan appears to have been at least temporarily resolved, but in the current volatile climate any time nuclear neighbours, particularly two rising powers, risk confrontation the world should pay much more attention. This particular episode can only be viewed in the context of China's regional ambitions as expressed in its Belt and Road Initiative, as well as India’s clearly expressed scepticism if not outright resistance to at least some elements of China’s rise.
India's position in this most recent standoff should also be viewed in the context of India’s own emergence as a regional and potentially a global power and their awareness of their own responsibility to its neighbours and the broader region. As it happens, I am in New Delhi this week to launch a new edited volume by the Perth USAsia Centre entitled “Realising the Indo-Pacific: Tasks for India’s Regional Integration.” We have chosen to highlight the work of seven outstanding young scholars from India and Australia introduced by Professor Stephen Smith, former Australian Minister of Defence and former Minister of Foreign Affairs. A PDF of the book can be downloaded here
As I have mentioned in this space before, an important part of the Perth USAsia Centre’s efforts to understand the changing indo-pacific region is our annual flagship “In The Zone” conference which this year focuses upon what we are calling the “Blue Zone,” the Maritime Realm in which India's emergence is an important part. We are pleased that one of India's leading strategic thinkers on these issues retired Vice Admiral Anup Singh - Former Commander in Chief of India’s Eastern Naval Command will be joining us on the 2nd of October. Regardless of where you are in the region we hope that you will make plans to travel to Perth to join us for what promises to be an important conference which will change the way you think about our shared maritime space. I encourage you to register here
To return to my earlier attempt at prognostication, since my move to Perth I now share a time zone with North Korea so the surprises coming from the Korean peninsula are no longer an early morning phenomenon. Unfortunately, given the acceleration of North Korean provocations, I am still not convinced that North Korea is best described as “the land of the morning calm.” I am, however, more confident that Perth is one of the safest places “In The Zone” to be. I hope to see you all in October.