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Howard in secret North Korea mission

AUSTRALIA is prepared to offer North Korea a cheap, secure energy deal, probably coal shipments, if the rogue state returns to peace talks, as part of an attempt to solve the missile crisis.

An Australian diplomatic mission leaves for China, Japan and South Korea next week as part of a concerted regional effort to avoid conflict on the Korean peninsula.

The mission follows discussions between John Howard and US President George W. Bush yesterday about North Korea's launch of seven missiles over the Sea of Japan on Wednesday. The missiles included a long-range Taepodong 2 that is designed to target US territory but has the potential to reach Australia.

"I think the whole world is concerned," the Prime Minister said yesterday after talking to Mr Bush, who called him from Air Force One.

Australia has already cancelled a diplomatic visit to Pyongyang and complained to the North Korean ambassador in Canberra.

It was reported last night that South Korea would go ahead with ministerial-level talks with North Korea next week despite condemnation of the missile launches.

Unification ministers from the two countries are due to meet in the southern port city of Busan.

But South Korea has rejected separate talks with the North on easing tension on their border.

Alexander Downer said he remained deeply concerned about the missile tests.

The Foreign Minister said Australia had imposed restrictions on North Korean visits and was sending Australian officials to the region and to the US.

"These officials are being sent to ensure a strong, co-ordinated response to North Korea's missile tests, including at the United Nations, and to encourage all parties, but especially China, to exert their influence over North Korea," he said.

"These visits also demonstrate to regional partners our common interests in resolving the North Korean issue."

Mr Howard said there was no particular reason why North Korea would target Australia with missiles but he wanted the US, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Australia to "act in concert" to deal with this dangerous time.

"North Korea is unpredictable, it does need to get a united message," he said. "If it gets a fragmented message, if it thinks the rest of the world is speaking differently or in several voices, then it is less likely to understand the seriousness of what has occurred."

Mr Howard told ABC radio in Brisbane that there were benefits for North Korea in returning to the six-nation talks on its nuclear program. "There are benefits, there are security, energy security, benefits," he said.

But he said the UN Security Council had to take the first steps to persuading North Korea to resume negotiations.

Mr Howard said he had asked China, on his visit last week, to intervene with Pyongyang.

A South Korean embassy spokesman said the issue of sanctions would probably be raised in talks next week with Australian officials in Seoul, but warned their implementation would have little impact on Pyongyang.

"Sanctions and restrictions are already imposed on North Korea," he said. "It is a severely isolated country but sanctions have not changed its attitude.

"I think it is a little doubtful additional sanctions will work. The problem here is how to change North Korea's attitude."

The spokesman said urgent work needed to be done to adopt a unified approach in tackling the Pyongyang regime.

"How to respond in harmony with the international community will be what we'll be discussing with the Australians," he said. "Our Government has very serious concerns about the North Korean actions."

Mr Howard has made it clear that North Korea could gain secure supplies of energy if it resumed talks and ceased its abuse of its nuclear program.

There has been a longstanding arrangement from the US to offer the reclusive state energy for power generation, such as coal or natural gas, with cut-price loans in return for its co-operation on peace talks and keeping to its agreements on its nuclear program.

It is understood Australia has considered playing a role in such an agreement and would help with coal supplies if it would help solve the impasse.

 

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