The 1970s witnessed the promotion of bilateral relations, generally unsuccessfully, by North Korea and some New Zealanders. The DPRK Ambassador in China met Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Walding during his March and October 1973 Chinese visits, though the Government was not ‘particularly anxious’ for a proposed DPRK visit to occur.
It was within this context that the decision was made in December 1973 to form a society to ‘further good relations’ between New Zealand and North Korea, inform the public, sponsor visits and ‘try and influence the Government to establish official relations’. With a provisional committee formed, the New Zealand-DPRK Society was established in March 1974. Leading Society members included senior academics Wolfgang Rosenberg and William Willmott, along with the Reverend Don Borrie. Borrie’s regular contact with the North had started in 1971, and Rosenberg visited the following year. Rosenberg wrote that his impression was ‘of an overwhelming economic success’. Indeed the DPRK was ‘one of the most potent sources of optimism for the possibility of a world free from hunger’. The Society hoped to establish branches throughout New Zealand with a Christchurch branch formed in March 1974, it critiquing ‘somewhat distorted’ media coverage of this formation, and Wellington branch that September. The Society prioritised a small national network over mass membership, a priority influenced by a desire to avoid left-wing ideological splits based on Chinese or Soviet interpretations of socialism.
“It was with this desire to promote peace through understanding that I joined Wolf in establishing the Society… We decided that we would seek to establish a small national network of humanitarian New Zealanders who were genuinely interested in the DPRK.”
– Rev Don Borrie, co-founder NZ-DPRK Society
The provisional committee had been asked by Pyongyang if a delegation could be received, and in May 1974 Walding said that a private Society-sponsored delegation entering on special travel documents was possible. Four North Koreans arrived in Christchurch during July to promote relations with a cultural exhibition. They were met by the Society and Chinese diplomats before staying three weeks and visiting Wellington. At the exhibition’s opening Willmott said that it marked ‘the very beginning of what we hope will be increasing exchange between us’, and was ‘delighted’ the visit had occurred so soon after the Society’s establishment. The delegation felt their visit went ‘very well’, and Rosenberg called it a ‘great success’. The Ministry called the exhibition ‘very harmless’, the New Zealanders ‘doing all the answering of questions from the few members of the wide-eyed public who strolled in’.
The visit was in line with New Zealand’s cautious approach. Prime Minister (PM) Norman Kirk indicated that relations would be opened in due course. New Zealand was gradually moving towards recognising the North at its own pace, and developing contacts with all Asian countries. The Ministry felt that the visit’s entry ‘would be a minor but useful step forward in this process’. It was further facilitated by some positive Korean Peninsula developments, and Australia established diplomatic relations with the North in 1974. Indeed, there was a feeling that Pyongyang was ‘emerging from its long isolation’.
Despite the visit New Zealand remained cautious. In early 1975 the Canberra Embassy was advised not to ‘actively discourage’ approaches from the North Koreans, but to ‘avoid giving any impression that they might lead to an early relaxation of the Government’s position’. This was because the Government intended to ‘hold the North Koreans at arm’s length for some time yet’. During May 1975 the North’s Ambassador in Indonesia also commented that Communist victories in Cambodia and Vietnam meant the ‘tide’ in Asia was ‘running strongly in the right direction’. Thus, it was ‘high time’ for diplomatic relations after almost a year’s talks. New Zealand’s Embassy in Jakarta responded that it would await the ‘natural course of events’.