CIA knocked back on N Korea re­quest

The Australian - - FRONT PAGE - GREG SHERI­DAN FOR­EIGN ED­I­TOR

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.

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