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Australia Hopes for North Korea Breakthrough - 2004-08-16

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer heads to North Korea for talks aimed at diffusing nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Mr. Downer thinks his government can play an important role as an intermediary between the North and the United States.

The Australian government says the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula is the most serious security issue facing the Asia-Pacific region.

The foreign minister, Alexander Downer, will visit North Korea on Tuesday and Wednesday after a short trip to China. He says the secretive regime in Pyongyang could expect economic assistance if it dismantles its nuclear programs.

Mr. Downer will not meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il, but he will hold talks with senior members of the government.

Mr. Downer says Australia has the ability to make a difference in the long-running dispute between Washington and Pyongyang.

"Australia is a significant power in the Asia Pacific region with diplomatic relations with North Korea, with personal contacts that I've built up over the years with the North Koreans themselves," he says. "That obviously enhances the role that Australia is able to play."

There has been regular contact between Australia and North Korea since diplomatic relations resumed in May 2000.

North Korea claims to be building a nuclear arsenal and Western intelligence agencies think Pyongyang may have one or two nuclear bombs already. The tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula erupted two years ago when U.S. officials said Pyongyang admitted processing enriched uranium for weapons.

North and South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the United States are expected to hold a fourth round of talks on ending the dispute next month. Washington wants Pyongyang to dismantle all nuclear programs, but North Korea says it must first receive aid and security guarantees. So far, it appears they are a long way from any kind of breakthrough.

The Australian government thinks it can use its close ties with the United States and its relationship with the North Koreans to act as a go-between.

However, Australia has in the past been critical of the communist government in the North, insisting it subjected "the population to a pervasive program of indoctrination and close surveillance."

Canberra's interest in the Korean peninsula stretches beyond matters of security. It has highly profitable economic ties with South Korea.