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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 20809

Press Conference Grand Hyatt Hotel, Seoul

Photo of Howard, John

Howard, John

Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007

More information about Howard, John on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 18/07/2003

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 20809

PRIME MINISTER:

Ladies and gentlemen, I had a long hour and a half meeting with the President and we continued our discussions in an informal atmosphere over lunch. Most of the discussion centred on North Korea. Obviously the government of Korea is very concerned about this issue, being the country closest to North Korea and the country which in the last 50 years has been involved in conflict with North Korea, and the memory of that and the death and the suffering hangs very heavily on the people of Korea and that is understandable. There is an obvious desire on the part of the government of Korea to have this matter settled, but of course upon the basis that the nuclear ambitions of North Korea are given up. We share that ambition and we will work in every way possible with the government of Korea and other governments that have like objectives.

I am encouraged by the fact that China is playing a very active diplomatic role. It remains the case that if you can get the five or six countries most involved around a table, that is likely to produce the most enduring outcome. But in all of these things, form should not take precedence over substance. If there is another way of reaching a lasting effective breakthrough, well that shouldn't be rejected. But it is nonetheless the case that if you can get achieved within the framework of the five or six, it's more likely to last.

I also took the opportunity of raising the potential of Australia as a long-term reliable supplier of natural gas. Korea has enormous natural gas needs in the years ahead by a multiple of two or three every year I believe, the quantity of natural gas involved in the Guangdong contract between the north-west shelf partners and their Chinese purchasers, now that's a very important thing for the Australian economy. I think it does underline the relevance for Australians and of the Australian economy of a visit such as this when you do think that the company whose steelworks I visit tomorrow, POSCO, is the largest single commercial purchaser of Australian product in the world. I think it does illustrate just how important these economic linkages with the countries of north Asia are, and also it illustrates how important it is that they be nurtured on a regular basis by visits at a prime ministerial level because store is placed on that and relevance is attached to that and it can be, as we found in the case of China of enormous benefit in winning contracts, and that means jobs and employment for Australians.

I don't have any more to say. I'll take questions.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, what was President Moo-hyun's assessment of the prospects for peace if Pyongyang doesn't give up its nuclear ambitions?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well his hope is it will and he wants it to, and that's his bottom line. I think like all of us, he is hopeful that we can achieve it peacefully. He believes that the North Koreans in the end will act rationally.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, after your talks of the last two days, are you now more optimistic that there can be a diplomatic solution to the North Korean problem?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I've never been pessimistic about a diplomatic solution Dennis. I don't know that my level of optimism has changed. I have never regarded it as impossible to achieve. But I always believe in these situations that you do pursue steady diplomacy for peace, but you by a series of measures indicate that there is a bottom line and that that is the objective and that that is what ought to happen. It's always a mixture of the two. I'm certainly no less optimistic.

JOURNALIST:

But are you more encouraged perhaps?

PRIME MINISTER:

What continues to encourage me is the active engagement of China. I've always held the view that China is the country more than any other that can influence North Korea, and that is demonstrated by history. The ties of history and allegiance and so forth are stronger between North Korea and China than between North Korea and any other country, and it follows from that that the active involvement of China is crucial. That is a view that we have put at a diplomatic level to the Chinese. It's a view we've held to and I'm encouraged by the fact that the Chinese Foreign Minister is going to the United States, is he not, next week for discussions. All of that is promising.

JOURNALIST:

Did you discuss the naval interdiction of North Korean ships as a possible measure?

PRIME MINISTER:

Sorry, who was asking that? Sorry Paul, I didn't see you in the gloom. Not induced by you - just the lights.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, did you discuss the possible interdiction of North Korean ships as a measure that may put pressure on Pyongyang?

PRIME MINISTER:

We talked about the whole PSI procedure and the President sad that he welcomed the PSI initiative. He thought that was part of the mix, if I can put it that way. They're my words, not his. I pointed out to him that we're talking about is the possible interdiction. We're not talking about a blockade. And I think it's important to keep that in perspective. And we're not talking about an interdiction yet. At this stage, all we're talking about is some exercises that would put some countries in readiness to participate in interdicting if that were to be done.

JOURNALIST:

What was his reaction? Did he have reservations?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well he, as I say, he welcomed the initiative.

JOURNALIST:

But did he have any reservations, any concerns, any ... about the how initiative might be furthered?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don't know that he had reservations about that. I don't know that he had any ideas about how the initiative should be furthered. I mean, like all of these things, he looks at it from the point of view of somebody who is right next door to the problem, and proximity focuses the mind. And that cuts both ways. Although the Koreans feel more vulnerable because they're right next door, equally they have more at stake, although everybody has a lot at stake with this.

JOURNALIST:

Did the question of South Korea joining the PSI arise? It's not currently a member...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that wasn't raised... I mean I didn't ask him to do that.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, was there anything that the President asked of you specifically that Australia could do to try and seek a resolution with North Korea?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well very generally what he wanted us to do was to use our good offices with countries obviously such as China and the United States to promote the goal. But it wasn't a situation where we were coming from different points of view. We both have the same objective.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister just further to that, did you discuss with the President your prospective trip to China in any detail in terms of using that to try and put...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I haven't formally announced that, so I didn't feel I could.

JOURNALIST:

You could use this opportunity now....

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, with the interdiction issue, is that on a separate track to the peace negotiations? [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Well let me put it this way Glenn. I think if the problem dissolved tomorrow, I don't think there would be a need, would there? Obviously there is some cause and effect between the two.

JOURNALIST:

Some weapons of mass destruction are not nuclear.

PRIME MINISTER:

I realise that but I think the real worry about North Korea is nuclear.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] United States adopting a ...

PRIME MINISTER:

No, he didn't say that.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Well he wasn't critical of the United States. Certainly not. When you say what did he say, he obviously, like I do, recognises that the United States is a key and that as I said this morning at the doorstop and I repeat now, in our region the two minds that should meet as much as possible to solve problems are the minds of the United States and China.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, do you think that the United States will go into three party talks [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't think he's got a strong view either way at this stage. What he indicated to me was that you shouldn't have a situation where form takes precedence over substance in trying to solve it. He wasn't expressing a view as to what the United States might do. I read some remarks attributed to Colin Powell on this issue which indicated that he wasn't in the business of elevating form over substance either. I don't think that is a huge issue. But my understanding of the American thinking on this is that they believe that to have an enduring solution, you need the two Koreas, Japan, China, United States at least. You'd obviously have other countries as well. And I think they're right in that respect. But that doesn't mean to say at some point you can't have another formulation, you can't have another group of people around a table. I don't think anybody should sort of suggest that you can't. And I don't hear the Americans saying well, you know, the form in which this is settled is more important than the substance. They're not saying that.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think that the four or five countries that you consistently talk about are in fact singing from the same songbook now?

PRIME MINISTER:

Do I think they are?

JOURNALIST:

Yes.

PRIME MINISTER:

Broadly yes. Broadly.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, did you discuss how verification, you know the details of how...

PRIME MINISTER:

No, we didn't discuss the detail except it was common ground between us that there would have to be the tightest possible verification system imaginable. The detail of it, no. One more question. Yes Mark.

JOURNALIST:

Did President Moo-hyun give you any additional intelligence on the status of North Korea's nuclear program, in particular the reprocessing of spent fuel rods?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't normally disclose intelligence at press conferences, but let me say this, that I think everybody has got a view about where North Korea is on that. I don't think perhaps it has gone as far as some suggestions have been made.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, can I just ask you a domestic question.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

JOURNALIST:

In the High Court compensation payout for a failed sterilisation case, a healthy baby was born. Do you agree that that has big implications for medical indemnity and you know, it is a bit unprecedented asking the surgeon to pay for a healthy baby's life?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I've seen the remarks attributed to the Deputy Prime Minister and I must say I share the reaction that he has displayed. I do. If that is the state of the law in Australia, I think the law should be changed. I'm not criticising the High Court because the High Court is there to interpret the law and I think we have to be careful we don't blame the court for doing its job. If that is the state of the law in Australia, well I'm surprised. I think it does have implications for medical indemnity insurance. It's something that the states of course have the power to fix. We can't fix that. We can only express a view. I see that some of the Premiers are alarmed about it. Well, it's up to them to fix it. People should understand that the law of tort in Australia, the law of negligence, is entirely a state matter. The Federal Government has very little role and it's up to the states to change the common law if it's not working properly. So whilst I don't express any criticism of the High Court, because all it does is interpret the law, it does surprise me that that is the state of the law in Australia and I can understand the personal reaction of the Deputy Prime Minister. I think a lot of Australians would feel the same way. I mean, a lot of parents have the immense misfortune of children being born with any number of disabilities and handicaps, and that is a personal and financial burden they carry for the rest of their lives, and they don't necessarily get a great deal of compensation for it. I think it's in that kind of context that many Australians would wonder about the state of our law. Thank you.

[ends]

Transcript 20809