DPR-Korea New Zealand

Promoting diplomatic and cultural relations between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and New Zealand.

Explaining New Zealand’s Caution

North Korean Foreign Policy

New Zealand-DPRK relations were tense after the Korean War and during the Cold War. There were New Zealanders opposed to the country’s involvement in the Korean War, and they expressed some support for North Korea. These included MP Reverend Clyde Carr and the New Zealand Communist Party. However, opposition to the North’s foreign policy was the primary factor behind New Zealand’s reluctance to build relations with North Korea. This was particularly because of its Peninsula commitments.

During the 1960s concern was expressed over North Korean aggression, such as its raids into the South. In November 1967 Charles Craw, New Zealand’s United Nations’ delegate, asked whether North Korean violations of the armistice was ‘their reaction to the remarkable progress being made in the Republic of Korea [ROK or South Korea] or are they the prelude to aggression on a larger scale’. In 1967 and 1968 the North’s attacks across the Demilitarised Zone were mentioned in Parliament too.

Attacks in the early 1970s caused further concern. The North failed to assassinate ROK President Park Chung-hee during August 1974 but killed his wife. The incident occurred after the DPRK delegation arrived in New Zealand, and Kirk expressed New Zealand’s ‘deep regret and sympathy’. PM Rowling in 1975 recognised the Peninsula was a ‘focal point of great-power interest in the region’, and that a ‘state of tension’ existed. There could be ‘no real reconciliation’ until the DPRK and its closest friends formally acknowledged and accepted the South’s independent existence. During the same year the Jakarta Embassy notified Wellington that the DPRK Ambassador had said ‘We have no fear of the South Koreans (wide show of Grandma’s big teeth)’.

Explaining the refusal to allow three North Koreans entry in early 1976, Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs Sir Keith Holyoake referred to the North’s unwillingness to deal with the ROK and to resume dialogue on peaceful reunification as major causes of Peninsula tensions. With such a visit potentially seen as political, and apparently part of the North’s ‘world-wide political effort’ to achieve wider recognition, the Government saw ‘no specific advantages’ in allowing the visit. Furthermore, the DPRK had ‘one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world’, the repression of freedom of speech and worship exceeding anywhere else in the region. This reference to lack of freedom influencing the Government’s position was questioned in the media given relations between New Zealand and South Korea, with its then lack of democracy. According to Holyoake, New Zealand’s attitude towards the DPRK ‘ultimately depends on that country’s own actions’. If the North ‘demonstrates that it is disposed to play its part as a responsible member of the international community, New Zealand will be happy to establish diplomatic relations’.

North Korea’s diplomacy with New Zealand was viewed by officials as unsophisticated and aggressive. This reinforced negative perceptions and caused frustration. In June 1974 the Jakarta Embassy complained that the DPRK Ambassador, who had been ‘very persistent’ in seeking a ‘courtesy call’, did not take the ‘broadest of hints’ that a meeting was not possible. The following month the Ambassador was described as a ‘first-class creep’. In February 1975 the Secretary expressed frustration the DPRK did not understand that New Zealand was ‘not prepared to be bludgeoned into early recognition [of the North]’. Apparently this ‘message’ had ‘not yet got across’ or ‘more likely, we suppose, it is being ignored or misread deliberately’. Later that year the Jakarta Embassy compared discussions with the North Korean Ambassador to mounting ‘the old treadmill’ where both parties ‘pedalled hard without result’.

Negative perceptions were further encouraged in the late 1970s. In July 1976 the Bangkok Embassy was advised of the ‘likely fruitlessness’ of accepting North Korean calls. Moreover, the 1978 delegation’s reported political activities, and the South’s accusation the visitors had disguised their status to enter, encouraged the March 1980 refusal of visas. In November 1981 the Ministry noted that the North had conducted a ‘strong diplomatic campaign’ since the late 1960s to gain wider international recognition, and greater support in its competition with the South. However, its diplomacy ‘frequently has been unsophisticated, heavy-handed and counter-productive’. This was noted in other countries too. A US official that year said the North Koreans were ‘their own worst enemies and usually manage to shoot themselves in the foot pretty quickly’.

The North’s moves to change New Zealand’s policy on Korea at the UN caused more critique. In October 1975, the North’s Ambassador in Jakarta requested that New Zealand be ‘absent’ at UN resolutions on Korea. When the Embassy identified ‘hurdles’ the Ambassador merely ‘cleared them nimbly or (more usually) booted them out of the way’. Later that month another request to ‘abstain’ or be ‘absent’ at UN resolutions on Korea had ‘unpleasant undertones’. The DPRK told the Jakarta Embassy that ‘since the former reactionary government which sent New Zealand forces into Korea had been toppled by the Labour Party we had hoped you would be more understanding of the aspirations of the Korean people’.

Nor was Government sympathy likely to be generated by some moves by Pyongyang and supporters in New Zealand. Delegations were expected to cover international travel costs by selling cultural and art items. Borrie found delegations ‘very friendly and cooperative’. However, the items shown reflected the North’s ideology rather than being consumer-driven, leading to poor sales. Delegation press conferences were called ‘very doctrinarian’ and ‘very long’ in the media. Similarly, North Korean printed material received by New Zealand’s Seoul Embassy was deemed not very interesting or useful. Indeed, the Society told the North that both ‘too much material’ was sent abroad, and it was ‘not appropriate to the New Zealand public’. This was because New Zealanders reacted negatively to the focus on Kim Il Song as they believed such material reflected a ‘personality cult’. The North and Society criticised the New Zealand Government and the South. The Communist Party was also critical of the Government’s position. It criticised the refusal to allow delegation visits while it had exchanges with the ‘pro-US fascist regime in South Korea’.

Importance of South Korea

The South Korean position was a major factor shaping policy. There were some negative perceptions of South Korea, and serious misgivings expressed over its periods of authoritarianism and political upheaval, but relations grew from the early 1960s. When Kirk indicated that a gradual opening of New Zealand-DPRK relations was sought, he noted the decision to establish diplomatic relations would be influenced by consultation with other interested countries, including the ROK. The Ministry felt that an ‘adverse reaction’ from the South was possible over the 1974 visit. However, Seoul was ‘well aware’ of moves towards establishing relations ‘at a suitable time and not at the expense of our long-standing relationship with the South’. Close relations with the South were also prioritised by PM Robert Muldoon.

Other countries

Finally, New Zealand policy was influenced by its friends and allies such as the US and Australia. Here Australia’s experiences were especially relevant. The South, along with the US and Japan, had been unhappy with Australia establishing diplomatic relations with the North. However, the North in October 1975 abruptly withdrew its diplomats (before withdrawing a North Korean crashed an Embassy car outside the ROK Ambassador’s residence and fled) and issued a note labelled insulting by the Australian Government. South Korea was ‘grateful’ for New Zealand’s decision not to follow Australia when it opened negotiations with the North. Moreover, New Zealand was aware of illegal activities by DPRK diplomats. For instance, in 1976 the North’s diplomats were forced to leave three Scandinavian countries and Finland after revelations of illegal tobacco, alcohol and drug dealings. It was also reported in New Zealand that North Korea could not pay its debts to other countries, and might be bankrupt.