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AUS Defence Minister Remarks on Korean Situation

*TRANSCRIPT*: Interview With David Speers, Sky News

Date: 25 November 2010
DAVID SPEERS: Joining us now to look at the developments on the Korean Peninsula is the Defence Minster Stephen Smith.

Minister, thanks for joining us.

These new threats from North Korea today about more attacks if the alleged provocation continues from the South, what do you make of that?

STEPHEN SMITH: I think the good thing is that in the last 24 hours, frankly all we’ve seen has been rhetoric. I regard that as a good sign and the provocation, frankly, is the reverse. South Korea, the Republic of Korea, has conducted itself in a very restrained and exemplary way in the face of enormous provocation this year and previously.

DAVID SPEERS: Which isn’t easy for it, you would think. A very nervous population there.

STEPHEN SMITH: And this coming off the back of the torpedoing of the /Cheonan/, their corvette, the loss of 52 lives and on this occasion really irresponsible, unprovoked battery attack, artillery attack with the loss of lives and injuries to civilians.

So it’s a terrible development of events that we’ve seen…

DAVID SPEERS: Do you know what’s provoked it yet? Are you any closer to knowing what sparked this?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, North Korea, as the Foreign Minister has said, is one of, if not the most impervious regimes in the world. So it’s very difficult getting into their mindset.

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What we do know is we’ve had the terrible incident in the last 24/48 hours, the /Cheonan/, the unveiling of further developments, bad developments so far as their nuclear program is concerned and in the last couple of years further attempts at missile and delivery system tests.

DAVID SPEERS: But after the events this week, has Australia changed its defence posture at all, or are we likely to?

STEPHEN SMITH: No and no. We are firstly, in terms of the bilateral relation, we have a very strong relationship with South Korea, with the Republic of Korea. Our collaboration on the defence and security and strategic front has enhanced in the last couple of years. In the next couple of days I’ll speak to their Defence Minister, Defence Minister Kim. I saw him recently in Hanoi for the ASEAN+ Defence Minister’s Meeting that we’re both parties.

But we have a very strong relationship with them which goes back to the Korean War in the 1950s. But we provided technical and scientific assistance for them when they were investigating the /Cheonan/. They, of course, look to their ally in the first instance, the United States, for support but we are giving them every support in terms of our support for action in the United Nations Security Council on the nuclear issues, our condemnation of North Korea’s conduct on the /Cheonan/ and our condemnation of their conduct recently.

DAVID SPEERS: If things did escalate though, in this very uncertain situation on the Korean Peninsula, could this be a situation where Australia becomes militarily involved?

STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, we should always take these things step by step. That’s the first point. And in the current environment, the current context, I see that as being most unlikely. So we’re a very long way from that. Indeed, I think if you look at South Korea’s restrained response, the United States indicated it wants to take time to contemplate how it wants to respond and support the Republic of Korea. This is seen as a calm and restrained response, which is a good thing.

The first thing we want to do is to de-escalate to avoid miscalculation or further incidents, get the thing back onto an even keel and then work through, whether it’s through the United Nations, whether it’s using, for example, the Six Party Talks to effectively hold North Korea to account.

DAVID SPEERS: Has China done enough this week in response?

STEPHEN SMITH: Generally we have said to China on North Korea generally and nuclear issues, China does need to use its influence. And in the past we’ve said we’d like to see China use its influence more.

One good sign that has emerged this week is that on the /Cheonan/ issue, for example, Russia was quite silent. We’ve already seen Foreign Minister Lavrov come out with a robust statement indicating that Russia, the Russian Federation, believes this is a most unwelcome development.

So we’re pleased that Russia has been more active on this issue…

DAVID SPEERS: What about China?

STEPHEN SMITH: We would like to see, and we’ve said this in the past, publicly and privately to China, we’d like to see China seek to use its influence on North Korea more. It does have a good relationship with North Korea, both historically and at present, so it is important for China to seek to use its influence on North Korea.

DAVID SPEERS: does China’s actions this year over some of those territorial disputes with Japan over the South China Sea, does that give you a bit of a worry that they may not be willing to step up to the plate internationally on this one?

STEPHEN SMITH: I don’t necessarily see the link. Everyone knows, including China, that North Korea is highly problematic and difficult to engage. China, of course, is a party to so called Six Party Talks, which is the regional and international institution that we’ve been using, the international community’s been using, to influence North Korea on nuclear issues.

But in terms of China and territorial disputes either in the South China Sea or the East China Sea, it’s important firstly to bear in mind that China is not the only country where there are territorial disputes in that part of the world, firstly. Secondly, we had a very good meeting at the ASEAN + Defence Minister’s Meeting about this very issue.

Australia’s been asked with Malaysia to co-chair an expert working group through that regional Defence Minister’s meeting, and that’s a good development. But we have said when, for example, General Guo, the Vice-Chair of the Chinese Military Commission was in Canberra earlier this year, we made the point to General Guo that in these issues we don’t take sides in terms of a territorial dispute, but we do want to see these issues resolved in accordance with international law, in accordance with the law of the sea and in a manner which doesn’t bring concern or tension to the region.

The openness of sea lanes and respect for the law of the sea are very important for us as an island continent. We are very economically dependent on sea lanes through that part of the world and generally.

Interview Continues…

AUS Defence Minister Remarks on Afghanistan

ENDS

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