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Senate Courtyard: doorstop interview: North Korea, Nauru.

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January 10 2003, Senate Courtyard

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer

Doorstop interview, North Korea, Nauru

DOWNER: Okay, well as the Prime Minister foreshadowed in his press conference just a few minutes ago, I'm just sort of running a relay here and I'm going to talk a bit about North Korea and I'm happy to answer questions on other foreign policy issues that have just come up over the last few days, I haven't been around and like the Prime Minister just taken a day off from my leave and come in attend the National Security Committee of Cabinet meeting.

But over the last few weeks we've obviously been very concerned about the North Korean situation I've had things to say on a number of occasions during that period. And, we have also been during the last couple of months talking to the Americans, the South Koreans and the Japanese, in particular, but not exclusively about this issue.

I put it to the Americans a few weeks ago that I thought it might be constructive if Australia itself made a direct contribution to trying to address the problem of North Korea. As a result of my discussions with the Americans and the Japanese and the South Koreans we are sending next week a delegation of senior Australian officials lead by Murray McLean from my department to Pyongyang. They'll be arriving in Pyongyang on Tuesday and they will be in North Korea until Saturday. They'll undertake a series of discussions with North Korean officials during the course of next week and they will also take the opportunity while there to assess the humanitarian situation, to talk with the World Food Programme and various humanitarian agencies operating in North Korea. But, the significant part of their work will be to explain the Australian government's position in relation to our concerns about what's happening in North Korea. Clearly to express our view, face to face with the North Koreans that we're concerned about the progressive collapse first of all of the agreed framework and the decision by the North Koreans to expel the IAEA inspectors from the Yongbyon plant, the reopening of the Yongbyon facility. And if I might just add this, just today the announcement by the North Koreans that they're to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Obviously, all of these developments and I think today's - the withdrawal from the NPT is the most serious of them. All of these developments are very serious developments and matters of great concern throughout the Asian-Pacific region and indeed beyond. But, it's our view that it's appropriate that we should use the diplomatic relationship we have with North Korea and not many countries in our position do have diplomatic relations with North Korea to proceed to discuss these issues very directly with them. Of course to hear what their perspective is but also to make it clear what the rest of the world thinks about the situation, particularly those countries we have been working with in recent months, the United States, but also South Korea and Japan. And, I think Australia can play a useful role in helping to at least put in place the path for a diplomatic solution. But I wouldn't want to overstate what impact the Australian officials will be able to have or what follow up action if there is to be any, Australia can take and what impact that will have - we just have to wait and see. But, we think given that we did re-establish diplomatic relations with

North Korea, they have an embassy here in Canberra and despite the fact that we have postponed the opening of our embassy in Pyongyang, that we should use that diplomatic relationship to engage in a dialogue with North Korea and see if we can't

help assist to take the whole process forward. Because it has certainly reached a very serious impasse at the moment.

REPORTER: Does this intervention by us indicate any level of frustration, irritation perhaps with the Chinese and Russian efforts on this matter?

DOWNER: No, I mean we're not frustrated or irritated with the Chinese and Russian efforts, I think to be fair, both of them have been doing what they can. I mean my information is that they have been transmitting quite clear expressions of concern to the North Koreans. I think they almost inevitably are going to be very disturbed to hear of North Korea's withdrawal from the, or expression of intention to withdraw

from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. After all, there are only to the best of my knowledge three countries at the moment that are not signatories to the NPT, Cuba having just recently signed it. So, I'm sure that the Chinese and Russians will share our concerns about that. No I don't have any negative views about what the Russians and the Chinese have been trying to do. The Chinese have often made the point to me that we shouldn't exaggerate the amount of influence they can have over North Korea and I think they're being sincere in saying that.

REPORTER: Minister what can Australia say to North Korea that hasn't been said already by the rest of the world?

DOWNER: I think the Chinese and the Russians have actually been quite forthright in talking to the North Koreans, but I don't think from so-called broadly defined here in our case, western countries, there has been a lot of face to face dialogue in recent times. Other countries like Canada, the European Union and obviously the United States itself have not had direct dialogue with the North Koreans at this stage to the best of my knowledge. And I think given the way, as an Asian Pacific country, we've built up something of a relationship with Pyongyang we should use that relationship to transmit to them our perspectives and understandings of how the world sees the problem of North Korea. And yes, to hear their side of the story. I think there are a number of things that it's important they understand. It's important they understand that the United States isn't directly threatening North Korea; they've made that clear on a number of occasions. North Korea is not on the threshold of being attacked by the United States and they don't need to respond in a manner which suggests that they believe that they might be subject to an attack. There's another perspective though; it's possible that they've been doing what they've been doing because they think as happened back in 1994, they can leverage greater concessions from the United States and other countries. But I think it is important they understand that this is not the way to win concessions - that they have obligations and they have had obligations, they've made commitments through the United Nations system to contribute to non-proliferation and they should live up to those commitments and not think that by walking away from those commitments they're able to extract additional concessions from other countries. They're not going to succeed in doing that.

REPORTER: Minister, on Iraq, the forward deployment possibility announced by the Prime Minister today - has your department begun talks to countries in the region to sort of clear the way for any of those assets to arrive?

DOWNER: Well, I think the Prime Minister's really answered all the questions today on Iraq. I don't think that it's going to help if I add anything more to that; I think there's a tremendous amount of material out there on Iraq.

REPORTER: Will the delegation discuss the opening of an Australian diplomatic presence in North Korea, or the permission to get one up and running?

DOWNER: I don't doubt that that issue will come up in the discussions, but we've made it perfectly clear what we want North Korea to do is we want North Korea to get back onto the path of nuclear non-proliferation. That is that we want them to adhere to the IAEA regime. We would like them to bring the IAEA inspectors back to Yongbyon. We would like North Korea to abandon any highly-enriched uranium plant and obviously we would like to try to persuade them not to proceed with their announced plans to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. And the problem for North Korea is that its engagement with the outside world is not going to proceed if they don't get back onto the multi-lateral non-proliferation path as laid out through the United Nations system. And that's not just a reference to Australia's decision to postpone the opening of our embassy in Pyongyang but that has enormous long-term economic implications for North Korea if it wants to continue to build up its economy.

REPORTER: Can you give us some more information on the delegation?

DOWNER: Well, there are three officials going; there's Murray McLean and John Carlson is going, who's the Director General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, which is part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and one other official to assist them.

REPORTER: Who will they be meeting over there?

DOWNER: Well, they'll be meeting senior officials; we know that they'll be having meetings at the vice ministerial level, but they'll be meeting not just with the foreign ministry but with other agencies as well while they're in North Korea.

REPORTER: Will there be any discussion at all about the North Korean presence in Australia?

DOWNER: Well, I don't think that they've ever indicated that they were contemplating leaving Australia; they've only just established and so we certainly don't have the view that they should be expelled from Australia; that's not our policy.

REPORTER: Will you be taking a message from the United States administration to North Korea?

DOWNER: Well, the answer to that question is that we only take messages from Australia. This is very much an Australian initiative and an Australian delegation. We haven't been set up to undertake this mission by the United States or any other country and it's our own initiative, it's our own thought. It's a natural evolution of the decision we made a couple of years ago to re-establish diplomatic relations with North Korea. Now, I say all that but remember that we have constant dialogue with the United States as well as other countries, not least South Korea and Japan on the issue of North Korea. I was on the telephone, slightly over a week ago, with Colin Powell on this issue. We had the visit by Richard Armitage a little before that, the US

Deputy Secretary of State and though a lot of that discussion was about Iraq, there was considerable discussion about North Korea as well. We have a very clear view of United States perspectives on this issue. We have a very clear understanding of United States policy and that, of course, is part of the value adding that we can bring to discussions in Pyongyang, that we have such a comprehensive understanding of United States thinking on this issue. But that's a different thing from saying, are we acting as envoys for the United States, we wouldn't actually use those words, but are we acting as envoys to the United States? No, we're not; we're acting on our own initiative.

REPORTER: Can you tell us a little about the worrying situation in Nauru please Mr Downer? What's the understanding that you have now?

DOWNER: Well, look, first of all let me just make this absolutely clear, the Australian government, since the time of Bill Hayden being the Foreign Minister, has recognised countries not governments. So where there is some debate about a transfer of power, we ourselves don't get involved in that. This is a matter entirely for the Nauruans to sort out; they have their own courts, they have their own legal procedures, they have their own institutions that can resolve these things. And as I understand it, there was a vote in the Nauruan Parliament but almost the only participants in the parliamentary vote were opposition members, the government

members or almost no government members were there at the time of the vote. The then opposition voted for a new President. They claim that this was a legitimate vote, that there was a quorum present for the vote. The then government, in particular, the then President claims that this was not legitimate, and it's gone to the Chief Justice. The Chief Justice expressed some concern about the situation but this is a matter ultimately for the Nauruans to sort out themselves. We're not having any involvement in trying to sort it out. But there is, in any case, an election scheduled in Nauru for March, so, I assume the election will go ahead in the normal course of events, and any ambiguities or confusions or difficulties they may feel they have about this, will no doubt be resolved through an election.

REPORTER: Who took it to the Chief Justice?

DOWNER: The outgoing President Harris did.

REPORTER: Are you giving any consideration to political level discussions with North Korea, rather than bureaucratic level discussions?

DOWNER: Well, I think we'll just have to wait and see how this visit goes and what comes out of it. I'll have something to say about the mission once Murray MacLean and his team return from Pyongyang, and that'll be just over a week from now. And we will listen to what they have to say and make some evaluation of what further steps we could take if it's practical for us to do anything else. I mean I just don't know the answer to that.

REPORTER: But it's possible that you may talk yourself or even go yourself?

DOWNER: I just don't know at this stage - it's just premature to speculate?

REPORTER: Are you disappointed the US acted so strictly in the case of Megan Stapleton? Should she have been sent to jail in Texas?

DOWNER: Well, as I understand it, she was in breach of her visa requirements and she was detained for some time in Texas. And she's now been released and is returning to Australia. So, obviously it's a good thing she's returning.

ENDS………………………………………………………………………... 10 January 2003