Wanted: an innovative Australian solution

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2006, 12:00am

North Korea's missile launches last week have China, Russia, the United States, Japan and South Korea putting their collective heads together in a renewed effort to bring the rogue state to heel. Australia is also putting in its two cents' worth.

Australian diplomats are fanning out across northern Asia this week, including China, according to The Australian newspaper.

They are offering a solution that would offer impoverished Pyongyang the prospect of cheap and plentiful supplies of energy - probably coal - in exchange for its return to six-nation nuclear talks.

Significantly for Prime Minister John Howard, the opposition Australian Labor Party supports the 'coal for peace' deal.

Its spokesman said the opposition 'would support any action that had a prospect of bringing North Korea back into the international fold and turning it into a responsible international citizen'. On his visit to China this month, Mr Howard had urged Beijing to get tough with North Korea.

But will this attractive offer hold water with the unpredictable North Koreans? The essential problem with the Australian proposal is that recent history suggests Pyongyang would renege on any such deal.

In 1994, North Korea and the US established what became known as the Agreed Framework. Pyongyang promised to freeze its nuclear programme and work with the international community to normalise relations.

In return, the US pledged to provide North Korea with 500,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil until a nuclear reactor, built by an intentional consortium, was built.

But in late 2002 and early 2003, North Korea ended the freeze at its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon.

It expelled inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, removed seals and monitoring equipment at Yongbyon, quit the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and resumed the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium, making it suitable for use in weapons.

The US immediately suspended its fuel export programme.

Then it was South Korea's turn to try the energy-for-peace formula. Twelve months ago, Seoul offered to provide 2 million kW of electricity from 2008.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the plan as 'very creative', but it never saw the light of day.

The Australian plan hit the headlines immediately after US President George W. Bush and Mr Howard spoke by phone last week. But why should it fare any better than earlier schemes?

The answer is, it probably won't. North Korea is not exactly short of coal. It has estimated reserves of 1.8 billion tonnes, which it is currently mining for domestic and export markets. Further, even if there are shortages, North Koreans have learned to live with them during their notoriously harsh winters.

Perhaps what would bring the North Koreans to heel would be an offer of Australian technical expertise and capital - to help it exploit its coal, other mineral commodities and hydroelectric power capacity more effectively and efficiently. Australia has an abundance of know-how in these areas, which could be offered to the North Koreans.

Australia has a constructive role to play in helping to defuse the instability caused by North Korea.

But it needs to try harder than simply repeating the old 'energy-for-peace' formula.

Greg Barns is a political commentator in Australia and a former Australian government adviser