Australia Dismisses Threats of North Korean Nuclear Attack

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The Australian government Tuesday dismissed claims that North Korea would launch nuclear-armed missiles at Australia, the U.S. or any other country involved in the interception of North Korean ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Canberra did not believe the North Koreans had the capability to launch missiles over such distances - but warned that states could not allow them to reach the point where they could.

In a separate reaction, Prime Minister John Howard also voiced doubts about the credibility of the threats.

They were responding to an Australian television interview with a North Korean military and political analyst based in Japan, who has long been described in Western media reports as an "unofficial spokesman" for Pyongyang.

Kim Myong-chol, who heads an institution called the Center for Korean-American Peace, repeated the warnings in a 20-minute phone interview with on Tuesday.

Any attempt to intercept and search North Korean cargo vessels would be considered "an act of war" and invite strong retaliation by the North, he said.

He noted that Australia, which had fought alongside American forces during the 1950-53 Korean War, was again supporting Washington's stance toward North Korea.

The interception plan, Kim warned, could unleash "the second round of that war."

"Last time, North Korea had no capability to retaliate. North Korea was helpless," he said.

This time, however, it would be a different picture.

Kim stressed that the retaliation he was speaking of would involve nuclear weapons. He claimed - as he has done on previous occasions - that the North already possesses a large number of atomic bombs, and the means to deliver them to cities like Los Angeles.

"North Korea has the ability to reach any part of the world."

Australia is a keen supporter of a U.S. initiative aimed at preventing rogue nations like North Korea and Iran from acquiring or transferring WMDs and related missile technology or parts.

Howard's government last week hosted a meeting of officials from the U.S., Japan and eight European allies who have signed up to the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which calls for stopping and searching of suspect ships or aircraft.

After the two-day meeting, Australia said it would take part with the U.S. and other coalition partners in training maneuvers planned for September, to practice interception skills.

Kim said Tuesday that the training plan was evidence that the U.S. and its allies intended to mount a blockade against North Korea.

"A military blockade is the moment of truth. The survival of North Korea is at stake. [It will use] whatever means are at its disposal."

Kim strenuously denied that the threats were a ruse, simply part of Pyongyang's strategy since late last year of ratcheting up the tension in order to secure a non-aggression pact from Washington.

"You can get a quick answer - just start a war."

If the Americans and their allies did think North Korea's threats were "a bluff," he said, "why don't they start an Iraq-type invasion?"

Kim said Iraq denied having WMD, and President Bush went to war anyway. But when North Korea admitted to having a nuclear deterrent, the U.S. reacted far more cautiously.

He said this showed clearly that Washington understood that Pyongyang was not bluffing.

'Tensions must rise'

An Internet search shows that Kim Myong-chol has for many years been portrayed in Western media reports as an "unofficial spokesman" for the communist government.

There was no indication that Pyongyang had ever disputed that assertion, or disowned his views.

Many reports also describe him as being close to Kim Jong-il and his inner circle, and some noted that he had correctly predicted - more than a year ago - that the North would stop cooperating with the U.N.'s atomic agency and restart its frozen nuclear reactor.

Asked Tuesday whether he was, in fact, speaking on behalf of Pyongyang, Kim said his views reflected those of the regime.

He said he had never described himself as an "unofficial spokesman," but found the depiction "flattering."

He claimed he was in regular contact with top officials, visited the North often, and was "a household name" there. His biography on Kim Jong-il was "required reading," and a copy was on display in the national museum, he added.

Asked how one could believe his claims about the North having dozens of nuclear weapons, he would only say that the regime itself had warned the U.S. it would unleash a "sea of fire" and that there would be "no shelter for Bush" if the nuclear matter was not resolved.

Kim acknowledged, however, that increasing tensions was part of Pyongyang's plan.

"The longer the crisis [continues], the better for North Korea. The tensions must go up until the U.S. decides between war and talk."

Asked how he envisaged the standoff being settled peacefully, Kim said Washington had to agree to the North's demand for a non-aggression pact.

If the U.S. continued to refuse, North Korea would soon publicly declare itself to be a nuclear power, he predicted.

"It all depends on America's behavior."


Downer, the foreign minister, told an Australian radio station Tuesday that the government was not taking Kim's "bluster" seriously.

"We don't believe for a minute North Korea would launch some kind of nuclear attack against Australia, or have the capacity to fire nuclear missiles that sort of distance - that is, if they have any capacity to fire nuclear missiles at all."

Downer added that the North was well aware that even if it could mount an attack, "it would be the end of the North Korean regime rather quickly."

"They are not only incapable of doing it but it would be completely self-defeating even if they developed the capabilities to do it."

Downer stressed, however, that nations had to be "strong and decisive" and ensure that regimes like North Korea did not get to a point where they did pose a long-range, nuclear missile threat.

Military experts say the North has scores of short-range (1,500 km) Ro-Dong missiles in service.

In 1998, it fired a medium-range Taepo Dong-1 missile clear across Japan mainland before it landed in the Pacific Ocean.

The South Korean government says the North has been developing a longer-range (4,000-6,000 km) Taepo Dong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile, but has yet to test fire one.

According to the Center for Defense and International Security Studies at the University of Lancaster in Britain, the outer range of the Taepo Dong-2 could pose a threat to the U.S. territory of Guam as well as parts of Alaska.

An envisaged future-date Taepo Dong-3 (up to 8,000 kms) could bring the West Coast of the continental U.S. within range, the Center says.

Listen to audio for this story.

See earlier stories:
Nations Will Train to Intercept Ships from Rogue States (July 11, 2003)
N. Korean Nukes: US Seeks UN Support (June 19, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow