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Australian Foreign Minister Upbeat on N. Korea Nuclear Talks - 2004-08-19


Australia's foreign minister says a negotiated settlement can still resolve the dispute over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons, although he saw few signs that North Korea is willing to compromise. Despite any tangible results following his trip to North Korea, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says he left Pyongyang more hopeful than when he arrived.

"Our focus was on getting them to understand what the broad issues are from the point of view of the region and the international community," said Alexander Downer. "And I've come away optimistic that they will remain engaged in the six-party talks."

Mr. Downer spoke to reporters on Thursday in Hong Kong after his two-day mission to North Korea.

Mr. Downer says Pyongyang is not interested in a U.S. offer of aid and security guarantees in exchange for an end to its nuclear weapons programs. China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States have held three rounds of talks with the North on the issue.

But a fourth round of talks, tentatively set for next month, has been called into question. North Korea indicated last week that it might skip the next working-level meeting that would organize future negotiations. Park Hyeong-jung, a researcher at Korea's Institute for National Unification, says he thinks Pyongyang is simply trying to bully the United States into making more concessions.

"We have observed in the history of North Korean positions, [North] Korea would like to make it unpredictable, North Korea would like to have image of unpredictability to enhance its negotiating position," he said.

Mr. Park suggests North Korea could maintain its hard-line position until the United States backs down.

The impoverished North badly needs energy and food aid. It also wants increased trade with other countries.

But Mr. Downer said Thursday that unless North Korea recognizes the value of compromise, it will find itself even more isolated than it is today.

"One of the points I made to the North Koreans was that this was not just an argument between Pyongyang and Washington, this is an argument that North Korea has with our region, the Asia-Pacific region and parts of the world beyond our region its important that they understand that," he said.

Mr. Downer says all sides recognize North Korea will have to freeze its weapons program and ultimately dismantle it. But he says the details could take years to work out.

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