CIA knocked back on N Korea request
It is not often the CIA makes a request of its close friend and ally Australia and gets knocked back, but it has happened twice — and it related to the most sensitive security issue of our time, North Korea. The State Department, at CIA urging, made a strong suggestion to Canberra that it consider a resident embassy in North Korea.
Keeping a bevy of North Korean diplomats under surveillance would consume sizeable ASIO resources
It is not often that the CIA makes a request of its close friend and ally Australia and gets knocked back, but it has happened twice, in 2013 and 2014, and it related to the most sensitive security issue of our time, North Korea.
In early 2014, only a few months after the Coalition government led by Tony Abbott had been elected, the US State Depart- ment, at the urging of the CIA, made a strong suggestion to Canberra that it consider opening a resident embassy in North Korea.
The formal dialogue took place between the State Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The American diplomatic and intelligence communities were acutely frustrated by a lack of meaningful coverage of North Korea.
A rare public insight into the thinking of the US intelligence community on this issue came in an interview former US director of national intelligence James Clapper recently gave to The Australian in which he called for the US to establish a diplomatic mission, short of an embassy, in Pyongyang. Not many nations have resident diplomatic missions in North Korea: two of the main Western nations that do are Britain and Sweden. It is a sign of how much respect the US has for Australia’s diplomatic and intelligence capabilities that it made the request.
At first, Abbott was inclined to agree. He and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had several discussions about it, although the matter never reached cabinet.
Led by Bishop, the government undertook a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of the proposal from Australia’s point of view.
Canberra sounded out several friendly governments that had embassies in North Korea to ascertain what value they got from their presence in the Hermit Kingdom and was generally told pretty dismal stories of ambassadors being kept away from meaningful North Korean decision-makers and being subject to relentless, 24/7 surveillance.
Australia and North Korea have diplomatic relations, but do not have resident embassies in each others’ countries.
At about the time of the American request, the North Koreans had been making life difficult for Australia’s ambassador to Seoul whenever he wanted to go to North Korea on an official trip.
The other problem with the Americans’ proposal from Canberra’s point of view was that North Korea would certainly agree to hosting an Australian embassy in Pyongyang only if it were allowed to reopen a resident embassy in Canberra.
North Korean embassies around the world are notorious for using the privileged diplomatic communications and transport rights of embassies to facilitate crime and illegal money-making schemes for their regime.
In 2003, at a time when North Korea did have an embassy in Canberra, a North Korean ship, the Pong Su, delivered a shipment of heroin to Australia. The ship, and the heroin, were seized by Australian authorities.
There is no evidence the North Korean diplomats then in Canberra were involved in this.
However, the presence of half a dozen North Korean diplomats, staff and their families in Canberra would be a significant extra drain on ASIO’s resources.
The priority for ASIO these days is counter-terrorism, but it has a critical role in counter- espionage and in making sure foreign diplomatic missions are not used against Australia’s interests.
Keeping a bevy of North Korean diplomats under surveillance would consume sizeable ASIO resources.
Although Canberra co-operates intensely with Washington on North Korea, the decision, on balance, was not to proceed with a new embassy in Pyongyang.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had been consistently against the move.
DFAT had given the matter a lot of consideration because the Americans had previously made the same request of the Gillard government in 2013. Then foreign minister Bob Carr saw merit in the proposal but was not inclined, in the last months of the government, to make an issue of countermanding DFAT advice.
The general DFAT position, which was the same under Gillard as under Abbott, was that satisfying the request of an ally, even the US, was not sufficient reason to devote the resources an embassy in North Korea would require.
The North Koreans themselves had requested permission to reestablish a residential embassy in Canberra under the Gillard government in 2013. Initially, Canberra agreed and a North Korean delegation was on its way to Australia to examine possible embassy sites when North Korea conducted a nuclear test.
The North Koreans were told not to come to Australia at that time and later the Gillard government withdrew its permission.
North Korean embassies in Canberra have a chequered history. Having re-established a residential mission in 2000, after a long absence, the North Koreans then withdrew in 2008, citing cost pressures.
In 1975, Australia had been one of the few countries to host embassies from both North Korea and South Korea.
The North Koreans took offence at an Australian vote in the UN and decided to leave abruptly, without informing Australian officials in advance.
In the current climate, the question of an Australian embassy in Pyongyang is not likely to come back into consideration soon, but in the long run the need for the US and its allies to know everything they can know about North Korea makes a substantial case for such an embassy.