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Australia Downplays Russian Fears on N. Korea - 2003-04-24

Australia is playing down fears expressed by Russia that the nuclear situation in North Korea could take a 'catastrophic' turn. Canberra says while the United States has developed contingency plans to bomb North Korea's nuclear facilities, it still is intent on giving diplomacy - such as the talks going on in Beijing - time to achieve their aim.

The Australian government sees the nuclear stand-off between North Korea and the United States as the most serious security issue facing the Asia-Pacific region, but not one that poses an imminent threat. Wednesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov raised alarm bells by saying the situation could become explosive at any moment. But Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer dismissed that view saying he did not believe 'anything dire was about to happen in the coming days, as diplomatic efforts are going forward.

Talks between Washington, North Korea and China are continuing in Beijing through Friday. They are the highest-level contacts on the dispute in six months.

Foreign Minister Downer told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the threat of war to keep North Korea from having nuclear weapons is a last resort. "If there was to be any military strike against North Korea, that'd be a very serious matter," he says. "The North Koreans wouldn't take kindly to it, that goes without saying so let's just try to reflect on what the American administration has been saying and it's been saying it wants to find a diplomatic solution to this."

The United States aims to get North Korea to keep its international obligations to be nuclear free. North Korea has said it first wants formal guarantees that Washington will not launch an attack.

Foreign Minister Downer says Australia fully supports the U.S. aim to keep North Korea from becoming a nuclear-armed power. "The American position is understandably that they want North Korea to wind back its nuclear program. Speaking as one of the regional countries, I think as a region the last thing we want to see is the nuclearization of North Korea because of all the consequences that could flow from that," says Mr. Downer. "For example, other countries in northeast Asia could take the view their security would be enhanced by going down the same path."

Expectations that the Beijing talks - the highest-level discussions since the nuclear crisis began last October - can achieve success are not high. But Australia believes this week is the beginning of a long diplomatic process.

Since December, North Korea has reactivated its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, expelled United Nations inspectors and withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Last week the crisis deepened, when North Korea announced it was reprocessing spent fuel rods - the step necessary to produce weapons-grade plutonium.