Declaring it an “extremely undesirable” act that could “upset the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region,” North Korea’s strong condemnation of the newly formed AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-United States) trilateral security pact came as no surprise. AUKUS emerged in September 2021, potentially serving as a strong deterring force against unstable and unreliable powers in the Indo-Pacific. However, it undoubtedly stirred debates on nuclear proliferation and brought greater attention to the arms race that has been developing in the region. In fact, the initiation of this security partnership has been the most significant geopolitical development yet in terms of its potential to shape power politics in the Indo-Pacific.
Notably, Pyongyang was swift in displaying its opposition to AUKUS; a North Korean Foreign Ministry official slammed the deal for its potential to disrupt the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region and further threatened countermeasures in case the deal had any national security ramifications for North Korea. While the full potential of AUKUS is still unclear, the scope of cooperation and its ability to expand in the region has led the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to join China in condemning this new security arrangement.
Gauging the Full Scope of AUKUS
At the outset, the strategic debate regarding the AUKUS trilateral security pact concentrated on its potential to deter Chinese advances, despite no specific mention of China in the trilateral joint statement. However, the potential impact of this security arrangement is not limited to countering Chinese actions alone. The AUKUS statement emphasized “enduring ideals and shared commitment to the international rules-based order,” highlighting the attempt made by the three Anglo powers to reinforce the importance of maintaining a rules-based international order and assert their partnership in a bid to demonstrate continued commitment to the same. This has clear security implications for North Korea as well.
Further, AUKUS is set to be a sustained mechanism focused on military technology and intelligence sharing partnerships. However, operationally, its impact is expected to be trans-sectoral, covering a wide range of concerns regarding trans-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security, including nuclear issues. In particular, the AUKUS objectives are contextual, cross-continental and wide-ranging in implications for the regional security of Asia and beyond.
More importantly, one key element to the AUKUS deal revolves around Australia’s plan to acquire nuclear-powered (though not weaponized) submarines. Pyongyang’s response to this part of the deal, claiming it would create a “nuclear arms race,” is not based on AUKUS alone. Its apprehension centers around the possibility that the arrangement could ultimately prompt a swarming of nuclear-powered general-purpose attack submarines (SSNs) in the region, among other weaponry.
While China and North Korea have both condemned this new security arrangement, the response from the international community has been mixed. Australia appears to have overcome the US tendency to be tight-lipped regarding its nuclear submarine technology, even with its closest partners, but this cooperation came at the expense of trans-Atlantic ties, dramatically canceling Australia’s agreement with France to build conventional submarines.
However, the response from South Korea was quite different. Seoul has long advocated for being able to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, but been repeatedly denied. Since the AUKUS announcement, however, renewed arguments have emerged about the importance of sharing this nuclear submarine technology further and the case of Seoul potentially joining the underwater nuclear race. Hence, the extent to which AUKUS could result in increased involvement of South Korea within the Indo-Pacific narrative and other US-led alliance groupings is also a great concern to both North Korea and China.
Moreover, should the US continue to deny South Korea this technology, it could (alternatively) turn to France instead. Over the past three years, the two countries have sought to bolster their defense cooperation while building on technological cooperation and economic ties. As France’s military industry reels from the impact of the canceled USD 66 billion submarine deal with Australia, it may welcome deeper security collaboration with South Korea. Such assessment is not out of North Korea’s strategic calculus—it has always been vigilant about the prospects of South Korea possessing nuclear submarines.
Keeping that in view, North Korea is likely to pay increased attention to South Korea and Australia’s two-plus-two meetings going forward. Even though these meetings have not resulted in any concrete actions being committed by either country yet, the relationship seems to be evolving, especially vis-à-vis defense procurements. Ultimately, AUKUS could reasonably support a scenario wherein Seoul wishes to actively join the underwater nuclear race by turning to democratic allies that ultimately support non-proliferation while attempting to safeguard national security.
While AUKUS includes cooperation on other sensitive cyber and intelligence-related technologies, its primary focus is on military cooperation; as such, it is commonly viewed as a scaled-down version of the Five Eyes (FVEY), a unique intelligence-sharing alliance comprising of majorly the Anglo-sphere democratic nations. At present, FVEY (the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand) and AUKUS share some foundational members; the latter could potentially expand its scope of cooperation in the future with other states like Japan, India and South Korea. Notably, FVEY—which has significantly focused on China and Russia—has for a long time been reportedly working with unofficial partners, such as France, Japan and South Korea, on the North Korean nuclear issue, with representatives from all eight countries possibly having met in January 2020 to discuss the situation.
In particular, considering Japan and South Korea’s geographical proximity to China and North Korea, their mutual security concerns vis-à-vis Beijing and Pyongyang, as well as their capabilities in intelligence gathering, they are often referred to as the “sixth eye” interchangeably in strategic communities. As AUKUS looks to “deepen cooperation” and “enhance capabilities” between its member countries, South Korea (and even Japan) may welcome further cooperation in trying to deter North Korean action and sway the power balance on the Korean Peninsula.
Beyond intelligence sharing, AUKUS could provide expanded cooperation between powers like South Korea, Japan, and India. For India and Japan, this could, in turn, be tied to the advancement of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) grouping while furthering both ventures in a complementary equation. While security cooperation amongst Quad states is mostly limited to bilateral engagement, AUKUS’s scope as a security grouping is much wider, spelling out specific areas for cooperation and being more conspicuous in its China-containing objectives. The Quad is more an open and consultative framework without an agreement, whereas AUKUS is a military pact that has a specific military-technological connotation attached to it, among other intended cooperation. Thus, AUKUS is not just poised to turn into a key focus of the trilateral powers, becoming extremely interconnected with their respective Indo-Pacific strategies, but also to emerge as complementary to the FVEY, as well as the Quad, especially as it looks to grow the alliance beyond intelligence sharing and into technological advancement. That will undoubtedly have implications for Northeast Asian security and countering North Korea’s nuclear advancements.
AUKUS’s Undesirability for Pyongyang and Beijing
More importantly, the AUKUS countries have few diplomatic ties with North Korea. While the US withholds diplomatic recognition of North Korea and negotiations remain stalled, the UK follows a policy of only “critical engagement” with the North, and Australia maintains only “limited” diplomatic ties.
Concurrently, North Korea and China renewed their Sino-DPRK Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in 2021. Classification of the China-DPRK friendship treaty as a defense alliance has remained its most crucial inflection point as it specifies that between the two parties, either should promptly take military measures against any country or alliance of nations that may seek to harm the other bilateral party. Overall, the treaty stipulates that the two countries should ultimately work to “make every effort to safeguard the peace of Asia.” In this regard, the creation of an alliance or security partnership heralded by Washington is not a welcome note for either Beijing or Pyongyang.
Moreover, AUKUS has the potential to grow from a minilateral pact into a multilateral one with a focus on Northeast Asia; and neither of these scenarios will bode well for the authoritarian/communist states of China and North Korea. In fact, this will certainly provide a convenient ground for them to solidify their partnership further.
While AUKUS may improve relations between China and North Korea, the message it sends is not helpful to efforts to restart US-DPRK nuclear talks by the Biden administration. Instead, North Korea has warned of “corresponding counteraction” to the “arms race” catalyzed by AUKUS, using this development to help justify further advancements of its own nuclear and missile developments.
Meanwhile, while China has expressed deep disapproval of AUKUS, it is also likely to try to benefit from the mixed reactions from the international community—including other US allies—to the new arrangement. The announcement left France in the dust and was made with little consultation with its Asian counterparts. While a new security alliance is highly alarming, an apparent lack of unity or common perspective among major players in the Indo-Pacific leaves cleavages in the region, especially over smaller states, to exploit.
Objectively, the opportunities for AUKUS are not limited to simply targeting or containing China. The entire realm of possibility ranges from military technology sharing and defense/intelligence cooperation to its potential to revitalize multilateral, rules-based cooperation. With such vast potential, AUKUS has the potential to impact North Korea’s risk assessment of the security environment in the region and influence its actions in the future. While the entire scope of influence of the alliance remains to be seen, it also brings about new challenges in trying to mitigate the arms race with Pyongyang and raises the potential for a rival alliance to solidify between China and North Korea. Unmistakably, however, the expansion of Australia’s geostrategic footprint has become a concerning development for the two communist states.
See also, “Answer of Chief Foreign News Section of Department of Press and Information of DPRK Foreign Ministry,” KCNA, September 20, 2021.