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Australia sending team to Pyongyang

Downer says Australia has a vital interest in finding a solution in Korea
Downer says Australia has a vital interest in finding a solution in Korea

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SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australia is seeking to play a breakthrough role in solving the North Korean nuclear crisis, announcing Friday it will send a senior delegation to Pyongyang next week.

The delegation, led by a senior diplomat, will discuss concerns about the North Korea government's nuclear program.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Australia had a "vital interest in finding a constructive diplomatic solution to address the nuclear question."

Downer said the delegation, led by the deputy head of the foreign ministry's North Asia division, Murray McLean, would visit Pyongyang from January 14-18.

He said the Director-General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, John Carlson, would also be a member of the delegation.

Australia is one of a handful of Western nations that maintain diplomatic relations with North Korea.

Downer said the delegation will meet senior North Korean officials, and hear North Korean perspectives first hand.

'Build on exchanges'

"This will build on the exchanges I and my department are having with the North Korean embassy in Canberra, and our extensive discussions with key players in the Asia-Pacific region," Downer said.

"Australia is well placed to play a part in international efforts to convince North Korea to step back from its nuclear weapons ambitions. We have formal diplomatic relations, and a long history of providing humanitarian and technical assistance to North Korea," he said.

Australia and North Korea agreed in May 2000 to restore diplomatic ties, nearly 25 years after the relations were severed in circumstances never fully explained.

North Korea re-opened its embassy in Canberra last May. Australia was moving towards doing the same in Pyongyang, but said in late December it was putting the relationship on hold after the nuclear crisis escalated.

Downer said then that Australia would not be opening an embassy in Pyongyang "for the time being."

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