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"North Korean militarism endangers our region" ... Foreign Minister Bob Carr. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

AUSTRALIA will push for a tougher international response to North Korea's recent missile tests when it takes its seat on the United Nations Security Council this week.

And the Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, has made plain he means to use the position to push for more action in Syria, where tens of thousands of people have died in nearly two years of civil conflict.

After winning the spot on the UN's top decision-making body, made up of five permanent and 10 rotating member states, Australia officially takes its seat at 2pm on Wednesday, Sydney time.

A priority for a council meeting slated for Monday (New York time) was North Korea's successful rocket launch in December.

The isolated communist nation surprised the international community by launching a long-range rocket that put a satellite into orbit, though many observers saw it as a cover for testing ballistic missile technology.

The UN condemned the rocket launch, as did Australia and most other countries. But it remains unclear going into the meeting whether China, North Korea's closest ally and a veto-wielding permanent council member, will back tougher sanctions against Pyongyang.

''North Korean militarism endangers our region, particularly South Korea and Japan,'' Senator Carr said. ''Australians would expect that we take a leading role in talks on international reaction to this launch.''

While upcoming meetings will cover a range of matters including the conflicts in the African nations of the Congo, Mali and the Central African Republic, North Korea is the most immediate security issue for Australia.

South Korean officials have said that launch debris they recovered shows the missile could carry a small nuclear warhead 10,000 kilometres, putting Australia within striking distance.

South Korea also joins the council as a non-permanent member on Wednesday. International reports suggest it may push for tougher sanctions against the isolated communist nation over its nuclear and missile tests, which are banned by existing UN resolutions.

Some security experts say there are growing tensions in north-east Asia. In addition to the perennial problem of North Korea, there are also territorial disputes involving China, Japan and South Korea.

Senator Carr has told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that is also determined to press for greater action on Syria.

''Australia has proposed a plan to protect medical workers in Syria and boost access to hospital care. I have flagged with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon our intention to pursue this plan in appropriate international forums in 2013.''

The UN has been calling on the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition fighters to discuss a political settlement. United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with President Assad last week and then flew to Moscow, which has blocked UN sanctions against Syria. Russia, which like China has veto power in the security council, has a naval base in Syria and arms contracts worth billions of dollars.

Australia's Ambassador to the UN, Gary Quinlan, has been attending Security Council meetings as an observer since Australia was elected to the council in October.