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Aussie FM to visit N. Korea for nuke talks
Updated: 2004-08-15 15:16

Australia's foreign minister will pay a rare visit to North Korea this week for talks on its nuclear programme after creating a stir in Sydney by warning a North Korean missile would be able to hit Sydney.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Sunday Australia wanted to use its good relationship with North Korea to advance six-nation talks under way aimed at persuading Pyongyang to drop its nuclear drive.

He leaves on Monday having shaken diplomatic sensitivities here by warning that North Korea could launch a missile attack on the United States or on Australia, which he admitted has no capacity to defend itself against such attack.

The comment on Friday sparked opposition charges that such "undiplomatic" talk would undermine the purpose of Downer's visit.

It also prompted the North Korean embassy to issue a denial.

"It's not true," a spokesman for the embassy told the Sydney Morning Herald. "Everybody knows that, even a two- or three-year-old child."

Downer made clear later that he was not suggesting North Korea had any desire to attack Australia but was merely indicating it had a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile with the capability to do so.

But he said Sunday it was a matter of legitimate concern to Australia.

"We've been concerned for some time about the evolution of their missile systems and it's important everybody understands that," he told ABC television.

"I'm not going there for a holiday. I'm going there because this is a profoundly serious issue and, as a significant Asia-Pacific country, I think it is right for Australia to try to resolve those problems."

Downer said he would re-emphasise during his two-day visit, which starts Tuesday, that impoverished North Korea would be offered economic inducements to give up its nuclear ambitions but there would be no rewards until it had shown its commitment to dismantling its nuclear programmes.

"I hope they understand the gravity of this issue, the way the world regards North Korea's nuclear programme, that this is not a minor diplomatic issue, this is a profoundly important issue and one which we must address," he said.

Before heading to Pyongyang, Downer will hold talks with Chinese officials in Beijing, which has hosted three meetings between China, the United States, Japan and Russia and the two Koreas on the North's nuclear issue.

The talks to end the 22-month old nuclear deadlock have made little headway since the first six-nation meeting was held a year ago.

Pyongyang has demanded rewards for the freezing of nuclear weapons programmes as a first step, which it says would lead to the eventual dismantling of its nuclear facilities.

But United States wants Pyongyang to shut down and seal its nuclear weapons facilities in three months in return for economic and diplomatic rewards and security guarantees.

The nuclear standoff emerged in October 2002 when the United States accused Pyongyang of operating a nuclear weapons program based on enriched uranium, violating a 1994 nuclear freeze of its separate plutonium producing program.

A fourth round of talks is due by the end of September.

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