Australia confirms US plan to confront North Korea
By Anna Fifield in Sydney
Published: June 11 2003 12:07 | Last Updated: June 11 2003 12:07

The Australian government on Wednesday confirmed that it is working with the US and Japan on ways to stop North Korean vessels trafficking nuclear material, narcotics and other illicit goods.

While conceding that talks were taking place in Tokyo, Alexander Downer, foreign minister, said that no decisions had yet been made about intercepting North Korean ships or imposing blockades on the country.

"It is a very difficult issue to deal with because international law requires that flagged vessels on the high seas can't be interdicted except in the most exceptional of circumstances. So to make a system of interdiction work, you have to have very broad international co-operation," Mr Downer said.

"To impose a blockade on North Korea would require a Security Council resolution, almost certainly. Though that might happen some way down the track."

The talks come just weeks after Australian police seized a North Korean freight ship allegedly carrying heroin worth at least A$220m (US$144m), highlighting Canberra's potential role in any US-led naval blockade of North Korea's economy. The Australian government has become a close ally of the US, contributing troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The US has threatened to clamp down on North Korea's export of drugs, as part of efforts to force the communist country to abandon its nuclear weapons programme. Lucrative sales of narcotics and other illicit goods are crucial to the survival of Kim Jong-il's cash-strapped regime.

Mr Downer's comments echo those of John Bolton, US undersecretary of state for arms control, who last week said that Washington was discussing with its allies a plan to interdict ships carrying goods to and from North Korea and other rogue states suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Mr Downer on Wednesday said that trafficking in nuclear materials was "one of the ultimate hostile acts".

"Trying to stop illicit trade in nuclear materials, which can lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, is an enormous issue for the world to address. The world has got to be a little hungrier in trying to solve these problems."

Meanwhile, John Howard, prime minister, on Wednesday rejected claims that Australian intelligence agencies were put under pressure to exaggerate the risks posed by Iraq's WMD.

Although he has not come under the same kind of domestic pressure facing Britain's Tony Blair, calls to explain the evidence upon which Mr Howard based Australia's support for the US-led war are growing louder.

"I have no reason to doubt the intelligence information that we were given and that information was not in any way massaged or induced by the government," Mr Howard said, adding that he still believed WMD would be found in Iraq in time.