JOURNALIST: With me now is the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop for more on this. Thank you for your time this afternoon.
JULIE BISHOP: Good Afternoon.
JOURNALIST: Now, as you’ve noted today the US isn’t taking the military option off the table. If it does come to that, would Australia be prepared to join any military action?
JULIE BISHOP: What I understand the United States is saying to North Korea is cease ramping up your provocative behaviour, cease your nuclear and ballistic missile testing, because the aim for our region is to have a denuclearised Korean Peninsula. North Korea is increasing the threat by increasing the scale and tempo of its ballistic missile tests, and this is all in utter defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, and so the United States is saying all options are on the table. We hope it will not come to that, but if the United States were to act, I don’t envisage a situation where Australia would be asked to be involved in that. When I say act, clearly what the United States would be looking at is taking out the nuclear facilities that are giving rise to our concerns.
JOURNALIST: So you don’t envisage that Australia would militarily become involved?
JULIE BISHOP: No I don’t, but my other point is this has been an option of previous US administrations. The difference occurred under the Obama administration where he exercised – that is President Obama – exercised what he called “strategic patience.” The Clinton administration began serious talks with North Korea back in the 1990s and progress was made up until about 2005. But there have been so many false promises, so many false starts on behalf of the North Korean regime – throwing out inspectors, refusing to have their nuclear programs verified, refusing to have their actions verified – and then under the Obama administration the “strategic patience” in effect was a stalemate. And it was during that period that North Korea was able to increase its capability.
JOURNALIST: So do you welcome this change of approach now that the Trump administration; Mike Pence making clear, the Vice President, that “strategic patience” is over?
JULIE BISHOP: The stalemate was not in our interests, it was not in the interests of the United States and it certainly wasn’t in China’s interests. The only country to gain from it is North Korea because they have increased their capability both in terms of their ambitions to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile deploying a nuclear warhead which would be capable of reaching the United States, that’s their ambition, now if they were to achieve that, of course it would be capable of reaching Australia.
JOURNALIST: Of course the big question is whether this is just talk from the Trump administration or whether they really mean they would be prepared to strike to take out this nuclear arsenal.
JULIE BISHOP: I note that Vice President Pence referred to the Trump administration’s preparedness to use weapons in Syria and again in Afghanistan.
JOURNALIST: So you believe they mean it?
JULIE BISHOP: I believe they mean it but I also believe that they will try every other creative option including putting more pressure on China to take a role.
JOURNALIST: Well to that end – what – I mean China has apparently already stopped some coal shipments from North Korea into China. That hasn’t really had an effect and we’re seeing North Korea continue with all the rhetoric and so on. What more does it need to do? Should it cut off its oil supplies to North Korea?
JULIE BISHOP: China is the largest financier of North Korea. About three quarters of all North Korea’s exports to go China. About 95% of all its foreign investment comes from China. So there is a long way to go before China exercises the financial muscle that it really has. The coal exports were in accordance with a UN Security Council resolution. I believe there is much more that China can and should do to use its financial clout. Australia is supporting the sanctions regime – we’ve listed a few more entities and individuals on our financial sanctions regime – but China is in a unique position to use financial pressure to bring the North Korean regime to heel. And it is a threat not only to regional security it’s a threat to global security.
JOURNALIST: One of the concerns China has is the US deployment of what’s called the THAAD missile defence system in South Korea. China fears this is going to have surveillance capabilities and obviously the capability to take out their own missiles. Should China be worried about that?
JULIE BISHOP: No, China should welcome the fact that the United States and South Korea have an alliance such that they would be able to deploy this system which would bring down a missile should North Korea fire one in the direction of South Korea. So far they’ve been testing into the Sea of Japan. But if they were to direct their missiles elsewhere, then we should be reassured that the United States and South Korea are prepared to deploy a missile defence system which has the capability of bringing down a missile mid-flight.
JOURNALIST: You’ve expressed the hope that obviously that it doesn’t come to military conflict, but you know as experts point out North Korea would be able to lob maybe half a million rounds of conventional artillery into South Korea fairly rapidly if it did come to it. Are there any precautions being taken for Australian personnel both at the embassy and Australian citizens in Seoul?
JULIE BISHOP: The stakes are very high but I don’t believe the United States would act without trying other creative means of putting pressure on North Korea. But what they have said is military options are on the table, in other words, all options are on the table. But my view is that much more pressure will need to be brought to bear on North Korea by China before any action is taken. Of course we always review the safety and security of our people overseas. I was South Korea recently. I went up to the demilitarised zone. I saw with my own eyes how close the North Korean soldiers are to South Korea. It’s a mere distance of 70 kilometres.
JOURNALIST: (interrupts) they were – I remember the pictures – they were eyeballing you, taking photos of you as they do.
JULIE BISHOP: That’s right, that’s right, as they do. So it’s a very, very fragile situation but we of course always ensure that our people are as safe and secure as possible.
JOURNALIST: Now the pressure on China here to act – can I ask you more broadly, China wants to be a leader in the Asia-Pacific region – how much of a test is this for China and its leadership in this region?
JULIE BISHOP: This is a significant issue for China. It can no longer shirk responsibility. In the past China has said this is a matter for the United States, North Korea will only deal with the United States. Well at one point North Korea was prepared to engage in six-party talks, but they then collapsed. I think that the idea that this a bilateral issue between the US and North Korea is long gone and now is the time for China to prove that it can be a regional leader and it can also use its undoubted power and leverage over North Korea in way that will benefit its neighbours and will benefit our region.
JOURNALIST: China obviously fears what might happen if the regime collapses in North Korea. Can I just ask you finally on this issue, what would you like to see happen in North Korea? Is it the collapse of Kim Jong Un’s regime? Would you like to see reunification on the Korean Peninsula? What’s the end game?
JULIE BISHOP: Our primary purpose is to ensure that it's a denuclearised peninsula, in other words, that North Korea gives up its nuclear and ballistic missile program, in accordance with the numerous UN Security Council resolutions. How that is achieved is a matter of discussion and I believe that China has a significant role to play –as a nuclear power, as a member of the Security Council, to encourage North Korea to give up its nuclear program and to …
JOURNALIST: (interrupts) But, so as long as the nuclear threat's gone …
JULIE BISHOP: … and to focus on the elites. The regime is made up of elites who are living very comfortably in North Korea and there are many millions of impoverished people in North Korea. We need to convince the regime that they would be better focused on the lives and wellbeing of their own people, as opposed to the elites continuing to live very comfortable lives in Pyongyang.
JOURNALIST: But as long as the nuclear threat's gone, Kim Jong-un can stay?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, this is a very difficult question. I can't see Kim Jong-un, from what I have heard and seen and read of him, I can't see him willingly giving up his nuclear program because he sees that at as deterrence against the United States. He needs to be convinced that it's in his interests, the interests of his country, to give up his nuclear and ballistic missile tests, and I believe China is the key.
JOURNALIST: Can I just ask you finally, away from all of that, the big domestic announcement today from the Prime Minister was to axe the 457 visas. I want to take you back to the Abbott Government. You were Deputy Liberal Leader, the Abbott Government actually relaxed some of the rules around 457s. The English language tests were relaxed, businesses weren't penalised if they brought in more than they applied for. Now the Turnbull Government's scrapping them, why the change of heart?
JULIE BISHOP: We've had a considerable review, analysis into it, and that review took some time. We have gone through it, looked at our unemployment figures, last figures were 5.9 per cent unemployed. We can do a lot better than that in getting Australians into work, and one place to focus is where the 457s visas have been used when Australians could take those jobs. So our priority is to ensure that as many Australians as possible can have the opportunity for a job and that the 457 visa doesn't become a de facto way to get permanent residency. Now we will be replacing it with a temporary skills shortage visa. That means Australians will have the opportunity to get good jobs, but business will also have the opportunity to bring in foreign workers in areas of skills shortage where it's needed, and it will be much more focused and much more targeted.
JOURNALIST: And could I ask you about Tony Abbott? You know him well, you've worked with him over many years, is he at the moment helping or hurting the Government?
JULIE BISHOP: He is, as a backbencher and as a former Prime Minister, expressing views. Some of them are contrary to the views he expressed previously, but people are entitled to change their mind. But what Tony knows, and we all know, is that ideas, if they are to be translated into policy, have to be tested for their impact and have to be costed because they invariably come down to budget measures. So that's what Cabinet Ministers have been doing in recent weeks in the lead up to the budget, we've been taking ideas, turning them into policies, testing them for their impact, and seeing if they can be cost…
JOURNALIST: (Interrupts) So, pushing his five-point plan, as he's doing regularly now, is that a help to the Government, steer you towards good ideas? Or is it really a pain?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, issues like a referendum on Senate powers, I mean those sorts of ideas have been around for a long time, that's not new. So…
JOURNALIST: … Immigration and some of the other ideas there….
JULIE BISHOP: Those are matters that are always under review by responsible governments.
JOURNALIST: And the RET, freezing the RET?
JULIE BISHOP: Well, it's interesting, that's not something that he recommended when he was Prime Minister.
JOURNALIST: Why do you think he's saying it now?
JULIE BISHOP: You'll have to ask Tony Abbott that.
JOURNALIST: Alright, Foreign Minister and Deputy Liberal Leader Julie Bishop, thank you for your time this afternoon.
JULIE BISHOP: Thank you.
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