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Australia shelves Pyongyang embassy plan

By Geoff Hiscock
CNN Sydney

Downer said it would not be right for Australia to continue to build up relations with North Korea now
Downer said it would not be right for Australia to continue to build up relations with North Korea now

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SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australia is shelving plans to open an embassy in Pyongyang next year over concerns about North Korea's nuclear program.

Australia normalized relations with North Korea in May 2000 after a 25-year hiatus, with the two countries agreeing in June last year on a reciprocal embassy arrangement.

North Korea opened its embassy in the Australian capital, Canberra, in May this year.

Australia had planned to open an embassy in the North Korean capital by the middle of next year, but the tension over Pyongyang's moves to restart its nuclear reactors has cooled that proposal.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said earlier this week that North Korea's recent moves had marked a "further significant deterioration" in the situation there.

Downer told Australian media Friday that it would not be right for Australia to continue to build up relations with North Korea after it had walked away from a 1994 agreement to halt its nuclear program in return for shipments of fuel oil and the contruction of two new reactors that do not produce weapons-grade material.

Tension on the rise

Since it began removing U.N. monitoring equipment, Pyongyang has further ratcheted up tension on the Korean peninsula by starting to move fuel rods to a previously mothballed nuclear reactor.

That opens the possibility of North Korea developing a nuclear weapon, though Pyongyang says its actions are only for electricity generation -- a claim disputed by several Western experts who say the reactor can only produce a tiny amount of power.

Australia is one of only three Western nations to maintain diplomatic relations with North Korea.

But as with virtually everything involving North Korea, it has been a volatile and unpredictable undertaking.

Australia first opened an embassy in Pyongyang in May 1975, but diplomatic relations were interrupted in November 1975 when, for reasons it never fully explained, North Korea withdrew its embassy from Canberra and expelled the staff of the Australian embassy in Pyongyang.

Downer visited Pyongyang in November 2000, and North Korea's Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun reciprocated by travelling to Australia in June 2001.

It was during this visit that the two countries said they would open resident embassies.

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