The key to resolving the nuclear standoff with North Korea lies in convincing its leaders there are better ways of guaranteeing the country's security and welfare than by clinging to its illegal weapons programmes. Pyongyang has to be convinced that the economic and diplomatic benefits now being offered to Libya as a reward for coming in from the cold are indeed available to North Korea. Having become accustomed to its pariah status, the North will not be easily swayed. This is an area where a country like Australia can play an important role. As an American ally with diplomatic ties to North Korea, it is in a prime position to give the country a nudge towards earnest negotiations. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's comments this week about the foreign aid and international trade that could flow after a deal is struck will have to be underscored again as he visits Pyongyang. Following assurances along the same lines from Japan and South Korea, the message may begin to sink in. A deal offering Japanese and South Korean aid in exchange for a commitment to end North Korea's nuclear programmes is already on the table. The next six-way talks between North Korea and China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US are scheduled for September 25 and the ball is in North Korea's court. However, the history of the 22-month crisis - and the possibility that Pyongyang is stalling to see who it will have to deal with in the White House next year - mean that further stalemate cannot be ruled out. In this context, the aims of the Downer visit are necessarily modest ones. But none of that should discourage Canberra from making the effort - and from seeking to lay the groundwork for a mediating role in the standoff. The immediate goal should be ending Pyongyang's waffling about the September talks and getting it to commit firmly to dates for both the working-group and main talks. Certainly China and Russia, as North Korea's allies, will have to do their part here, but Australia's involvement should reinforce the assurances about aid and security. Australia's record in helping the peace process between Indonesia and East Timor shows that it can play the role of an honest broker. The country's distance from the North Asian geo-strategic drama may even be an advantage. The Libyan deal was years in the making. It might not have happened had Britain not taken up the role of go-between for Tripoli and Washington, which were as far apart a decade ago as Pyongyang and Washington are now. The result, however, has been the rehabilitation of a dangerously isolated state and new light on illegal nuclear-technology networks. The same could be achieved with North Korea, but only with the help of mediating countries including Australia. Mr Downer's trip to Pyongyang should be seen as part of a long-term diplomatic effort.