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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 August, 2004, 04:30 GMT 05:30 UK
Australia team visits North Korea
Alexander Downer
Alexander Downer: Australia has a "particular" role
Australia has sent a delegation of officials to North Korea for discussions aimed at defusing nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

It hopes to use Australia's regional influence to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has announced he will visit North Korea later this month.

Mr Downer believes his government can act as an intermediary between the North and the United States.

Australia has said the nuclear stand-off on the Korean peninsula is the most serious security issue facing the Asia-Pacific region.

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

North Korea has an embassy in Canberra and the Australians believe their opinions matter in Pyongyang.

Mr Downer will visit the secretive state later this month after a short trip to China.

He said Australia was a "significant power in the region" and had an important part to play in the discussions over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

"I think Australia can play a particular role in assisting the process of eventually dismantling North Korea's nuclear programme, but also potentially provide other assistance as well," Mr Downer told Australian radio.

It claims to have nuclear weapons and to be building up its arsenal, although there has been no independent verification.

Australia believes it can use its "close and intimate" ties with the United States and its relationship with the North Koreans to act as a go-between.

Washington and Pyongyang have appeared - at least in public - to be a long way from any kind of breakthrough.

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

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

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