Doorstop interview

  • Transcript, E&OE
29 August 2017

JULIE BISHOP: Reports this morning that North Korea has fired a missile over the territory of Japan is a serious escalation in provocative behaviour of North Korea in pursuing its illegal missile testing program and nuclear weapons program. To fire a missile over the territory of another nation is threatening, dangerous and provocative. North Korea is in breach of numerous UN Security Council resolutions and is acting illegally. Australia urges all countries to fully implement the UN Security Council sanctions which will take effect shortly, hoping that this will mean North Korea will re-assess its calculation of risk and cease these programs and cease its provocative and dangerous behaviour. In the meantime, we are working closely with the United States, Japan, South Korea, China and other members of the Security Council to find ways to deter North Korea and to bring it back to the negotiating table.

JOURNALIST: We know it is an act of aggression but is it an act of war?

JULIE BISHOP: It is most certainly a provocative and dangerous and destabilising and threatening act. However, our focus is on deterring North Korea from continuing down this path, so we are seeking to de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula. I think that says a lot about Japan's response. It was not to shoot it down as Japan clearly has the capability to do but it's obviously calculating the worth of being able to recover the debris as this missile broke up. We are yet to determine precisely what type of missile it was but it's assumed a ballistic missile.

JOURNALIST: Has Australia offered any assistance to Japan?

JULIE BISHOP: Australia and Japan are in close contact. I met with Foreign Minister Taro Kono in Manila recently, and we stand ready to support Japan at any time. I also spoke last Friday to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and we spoke about a number of matters including the behaviour of North Korea. The United States is determined to resolve this peacefully. As President Trump has said, all options are on the table but the United States is determined to resolve these tensions peacefully and to deter North Korea from its current behaviour.

JOURNALIST: Would the Japanese be justified in interpreting it as an act of war?

JULIE BISHOP: That's a matter for the Japanese to determine. At this point, I understand the Japanese made the decision not to shoot it down, they were clearly tracking it, they have the capability to do that, and made the calculation it was not going to hit Japanese territory but would fall into the ocean. So there is obviously some value in leaving it rather than shooting it down.

JOURNALIST: Does the Australian Government after every missile launch, does it re-assess the need or potential need for a defence missile system or is it just a blanket no?

JULIE BISHOP: The defence system that is raised with us is the one that is in South Korea and that would not be appropriate for Australia. It is a missile defence shield that is designed to protect South Korea from aggressive acts from North Korea. If you have ever been to Seoul, you know how close North and South Korea are. With the country the size of Australia, I mean we are a continent size, the THAAD missile shield, I'm advised, would not be appropriate but of course we are always assessing and re-assessing our security and defence situation.

JOURNALIST: In terms of deterrence, what do you see as the pathway forward for deterrence and if firing a missile over a friendly piece of territory isn't a provocation for some kind of pre-emptive or preventive military action, what is?

JULIE BISHOP: We have been down this path before with North Korea. The last time they fired a missile over the territory of Japan was in 1998. Over time, we managed to talk North Korea around to abiding, for a short while, with UN Security Council resolutions. Of course the scale and pace of these tests is increasing, the tempo is increasing. But you will remember, back in 2000, just two years after the missile test over Japan, North and South Korea marched as one team at the Sydney Olympics. We got to the point where we had managed to change North Korea's behaviour for a period and that's what the United States is hoping to do again. China is playing a significant role in imposing the sanctions. They are yet to have full impact because a number of them won't be coming into effect until early September but the UN Security Council resolution bans the export of North Korean coal and lead and iron ore and seafood, a significant amount of financing would be behind that kind of exporting. It's also banned any new work visas for North Korean workers. This will have a serious impact on North Korea and we hope it will make it change its risk calculation. The sanctions have to be fully implemented by all countries and hopefully North Korea will see that it should be focusing its scarce resources on the wellbeing of its impoverished people rather than building illegal weapons programs.

JOURNALIST: President Donald Trump said he would respond with fire and fury any threat to US interests. Do you fear this missile launch could provoke a US war into the Korean Peninsula and possibly Australia?

JULIE BISHOP: I note that the Pentagon has already put out a statement saying that this missile did not threaten United States territory and did not threaten the United States. Of course, it was over the territory of Japan and so Japan would see it as a provocative and threatening and dangerous act but it was not a missile directed towards United States territory, as I understand it. In my discussions with Secretary of State Tillerson, he made it clear that they would pursue peaceful options. All options are on the table but that they must pursue diplomatic, political and economic efforts first to de-escalate tensions, not escalate them.

JOURNALIST: I appreciate the Chinese sanctions are yet to kick in but is China doing enough, especially when every time we have had one of these missile tests, the Government has said China needs to use its influence? Is China doing enough?

JULIE BISHOP: China was part of the unanimous UN Security Council resolution that imposed the toughest, most comprehensive set of sanctions against North Korea ever and China has confirmed it will fully implement the ban on North Korean coal, lead, iron ore and seafood. China is the major destination, the main destination, for North Korean exports. So China is playing its part in upholding the sanctions against the regime and also China is the main destination for North Korean migrant workers. China has confirmed that it will not issue any new work visas for North Korean workers. That will have a significant economic impact on North Korea and that's what we are seeking to do, to put sufficient pressure on the regime that it recalculates the risks that it is undertaking by behaving illegally.

JOURNALIST: Is there any evidence or reason why North Korea is ramping up their testing? Is it to improve their chance at taking their case to a bargaining table or do you think they are literally preparing for war?

JULIE BISHOP: I think it is the former. We have seen this pattern of behaviour by the North Korean regimes over a number of decades. They ramp up the provocative behaviour and it gets to a point where they then sit down and negotiate. I would like to think it's the former at this point.

JOURNALIST: Are there any precautions being taken with the Australian personnel involved in the military exercises or, indeed, any other Australian assets in that part of the world?

JULIE BISHOP: We recognise the right of all countries to self-defence and we recognise the right of countries to take part in regional defence exercises, including the United States, South Korea, Australia takes part in these exercises. This is part of a country's defence posture, that you undertake exercises with other nations. So we certainly recognise the right of countries to do that and Australia takes part in such exercises but we are always calculating the risk. We are always assessing the security situation for our personnel, whether it's defence or whether it's consular and diplomatic personnel in South Korea, for example. We don't have a diplomatic presence in North Korea but we are certainly very conscious of the threatening behaviour and how it could impact in Seoul, for example, where Australia does have significant personnel.

JOURNALIST: We have seen cycles of this behaviour over the past few decades, we have got very different personalities in the geopolitical scene at the moment, how much of a difference does that make, who is actually in charge of the leaders now, compared to the late 90s?

JULIE BISHOP: There have been many changes of leaders in the major countries involved in the North Korean situation over the years and there have been differences in approaches from the South Korean leadership, for example, and that has a significant impact on how the negotiations do or do not proceed. So we take each circumstance as it presents. President Trump has made it quite clear that the United States will not be threatened. President Trump has made it quite clear that military options are on the table, but that must have been in the consideration of all former US Presidents, depending upon the nature of the threat posed by North Korea from time to time. We are dealing with a different North Korean leader and that's another calculation that we have to consider.

JOURNALIST: Were you planning to send an envoy to North Korea, whether an Australian or someone else, an American?

JULIE BISHOP: All matters are under consideration. I know that the United States has significant connections throughout the region and they will be making the most of all of them. Likewise, much of this goes on behind the scenes but I know China and the United States are speaking constantly about this issue.

JOURNALIST: Are we planning to send an Australian envoy?

JULIE BISHOP: We have not been asked but of course we always stand ready to assist in any way that we can. Australia has made it quite clear that we believe North Korea's behaviour is illegal, it's provocative, it's threatening, it presents a risk to regional security and North Korea is, indeed, a global threat. So anything that we can do to assist the international community uphold the international rules-based order, we will. We must not forget that North Korea is in direct defiance of at least six UN Security Council resolutions. In an international rules-based order, you cannot have one nation in defiance of the UN Security Council. The authority of the UN Security Council must be upheld.

JOURNALIST: Minister, what gives you any sign that Kim Jong Un is prepared to bargain like his father and his grandfather were?

JULIE BISHOP: There have been indications that North Korea is listening.

JOURNALIST: What kind of indications? Can you share those?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, they didn't proceed with the threat against Guam, for example. There are indications that they are listening. Their response is sometimes hard to assess and this current missile test is obviously another message but there are experts who read North Korea's messaging and I believe that this is an indication that North Korea will be prepared to negotiate. It's an indication...

JOURNALIST: What's your latest advice on the capacity of North Korea to threaten Australian territory?

JULIE BISHOP: It goes back to the capability of its ballistic missiles and if North Korea has the capability of developing a ballistic missile with the ability to reach the United States, then, of course, you just have to draw the concentric circle, it has the capability to reach a number of countries. The question is whether it has established the ability to mount a miniaturised nuclear device on such a ballistic missile. So there are many assessments going on currently about its capability. It is difficult to get an insight into North Korea's operations, given that very few countries have a presence there. Nevertheless, the United States and others are keeping a very close eye on the capacity, the ability of North Korea, to develop such weapons.

JOURNALIST: Could you see our Government operating on the assumption that it actually could hit us or how are you approaching your policy making?

JULIE BISHOP: One must always work on the assumption that, if unchecked, North Korea could develop a very dangerous capability that has the capacity to threaten countries in our region, including the United States. I can assure you, that's the way the United States is assessing North Korea's capacity. It has, in recent months, fired more missiles than it has in previous years, so the tempo of its efforts is increasing. Even if they fail, it still gives them experience and opportunity to learn, so a failed ballistic missile test is also dangerous, as to what they can learn from it.

JOURNALIST: Minister, in your recent conversations with the US Administration, have there been any further requests for Australian troops to Afghanistan?

JULIE BISHOP: No. I spoke to Secretary Tillerson on Friday. He went through, in some detail, the new strategy on Afghanistan. He thanked Australia for our contribution, he was delighted that we had increased troop numbers by about 30 recently and we have about 300 there. I believe we're the second-largest non-NATO contributor, and the United States was very pleased that we continue to be part of a coalition to determine to ensure that Afghanistan doesn't again become a haven, a headquarters, for terrorist organisations.

JOURNALIST: What about the Philippines? Is there any conversation about the situation in the Philippines? Did you give any indication that Australia might be prepared to do some more heavy lifting over there?

JULIE BISHOP: I certainly spoke to President Duterte about that when I was in Manila recently and offered to assist the Philippines in their fight against terrorism. The fact that ISIS now has a presence in the southern Philippines is deeply concerning, not only for the Philippines but for the region. I have been in constant discussion with my counterparts from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines and also with Secretary Tillerson about the situation in Marawi. The Philippines are taking it very seriously. They are very concerned and are seeking resources for the Armed Forces Philippines to undertake the war against ISIS as it embeds in civilian areas in Marawi. It is a very dangerous fight but Australia has already offered, and is supplying, support to Philippines and we stand ready to assist should they require more, as does the United States.

JOURNALIST: Have you offered to help militarily, beyond the P3s?

JULIE BISHOP: No. We offered to provide what support they need and they haven't identified what it is. Obviously we would be ready to support the Philippines in the same way we are supporting Iraq in advising, assisting and training and the Armed Forces Philippines are in the process of engaging in a pretty brutal fight with ISIS. So Australia is already providing surveillance, we're providing intelligence and information, and we've offered to assist in any way that might add to the likelihood of defeating this scourge in the Philippines. It is in our region.

JOURNALIST: And that includes sending Australian soldiers to act as trainers?

JULIE BISHOP: That is not what we offered, but we indicated what we have been doing in Iraq. I went through in some detail with the President the support we have given in Iraq, which does not include troops on the ground – that is advising and assisting. The President heard my offer. I know the United States, like-wise, made offers. I know Malaysia and Indonesia are prepared to support, Singapore are prepared to support the Philippines should they request that support.

JOURNALIST: Is there any obligation on Australia to implement US secondary sanctions on China?

JULIE BISHOP: There is no obligation on Australia to implement other than the UN Security Council resolutions and our own autonomous sanctions. I recently listed further individuals and entities for targeted financial sanctions and travel bans. So we are fully implementing the UN Security Council sanctions and our own list of autonomous sanction, which I keep under constant review, should more people from North Korea, who are connected to their illegal programs be identified. Thank you.

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