TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH KIERAN GILBERT, SKY PM AGENDA
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 4 April 2013
KIERAN GILBERT: Defence Minister Stephen Smith, thanks for your time. The United States has now moved its advanced anti-ballistic missile system to Guam. Pyongyang continues to ratchet up the rhetoric. How close is the Peninsula to all out war?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we have to take this in a very calm and restrained way. We strongly support the actions of the United States to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Republic of Korea- with South Korea- and also with Japan, against whom threats have also been made. We welcome the fact that China has urged restraint on North Korea, but we entirely understand that the United States would take necessary precautions, both on their own behalf, given that United States assets have been threatened, but also on behalf of their allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan. We urge calm and restraint, and we urge North Korea to abide by successive United Nations Security Council resolutions, so far as their nuclear program and nuclear threats are concerned.
KIERAN GILBERT: It only takes one miscalculation from either side to see this erupt. What are the major risks at the moment as you see it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there's no doubt that when it comes to causes of concern for the international community and dangers of misjudgement or miscalculation, that the Korean Peninsula, particularly the provocative actions of North Korea, is at the top of the list. Secondly, you would find the Iran nuclear program, but for the moment the focus is on North Korea's irresponsible and provocative actions, and Australia has made it clear that we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Republic of Korea, also with Japan. The Republic of Korea- South Korea- has endured, over the last couple of years, enormous provocation including the sinking of the Cheonan, the corvette, which cost too many South Korean lives. So they've been subject to great provocation. They have restrained themselves. But the danger is that there comes a point in time where South Korea refuses to turn the other cheek, and that's why we have privately and publicly urged China to do everything it can to express its view to North Korea, that North Korea needs to desist from these provocative actions, and I'm sure that when the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister are in China in the next day or two that they'll make that same point privately to our Chinese friends but also publicly.
KIERAN GILBERT: Yeah, the Minister- the Foreign Minister and the PM have both indicated that, but how much clout does China really have these days with Pyongyang?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the two countries who can have most influence on North Korea are China and Russia, and we welcome the fact that both China and Russia, in recent days, have indicated that they've urged North Korea to exercise restraint. China is obviously best placed to most influence North Korea. In my last visit to Beijing, when I discussed this issue with then Chinese Defence Minister Liang, he made the point to me that China often urges restraint on North Korea. He also made the point to me that whilst China can influence North Korea, North Korea is a sovereign independent nation, but given the array and the range of provocative actions that we've seen from North Korea, we urge China to redouble its efforts to influence North Korea to restore calm to the Korean Peninsula because, as you point out, the risks are great and the adverse consequences would be extremely tragic.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, there have been some suggestions that Australia could be dragged into any conflict on the Peninsula because as an ally of South Korea, in that conflict, what, sixty years ago, that that conflict actually never formally came to an end?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that's right. There's an armistice, but no formal conclusion. There continues to be a United Nations mandate so far as the Korean Peninsula is concerned. We have a very small number of personnel who are part of the United Nations contingent. We take this step by step. One of the things that we've done over the years is to look at our contingency plans, so far as the safety and security of Australian personnel on the Peninsula, including Australian citizens who might be there for business or for tourist purposes. But we don't engage in public discussion beyond that, about the hypothetical. We take it step by step. We've seen this type of provocation from North Korea in the past and previously it has led either to exchanges of robust language and the occasional artillery exchange, but in these circumstances we continue to urge restraint upon all, but in terms of what our future involvement might be, we take that step by step. We have a small number of personnel as part of the United Nations contingent, but there are very many Australians who regularly are in the Republic of Korea- in Seoul in South Korea- for tourist or for business purposes, and we have contingency plans to deal with their safety and security and obviously that's done in conjunction with Korean, United States and UN authorities.