New Zealand’s first diplomatic visit to the North in 1997 was related to KEDO. The first Track Two visit occurred the following year, the Foreign Ministers met in July 2000 and that September a Ministry delegation visited the DPRK. Tony Browne, Director of the Ministry’s North Asia Division, led negotiations. These had been scheduled for two hours by the North but lasted over seven hours. Negotiations covered North-South Korean relations (these probably took the most time), disarmament and arms control, missiles, progress with KEDO, human rights, regional political and security issues, trade, and wider bilateral links. According to Browne ‘The main point we were making was that if we were to have a formal relationship we wanted that to be one that gave us the opportunity to discuss all issues. We were not there simply so that the DPRK could put another country into its trophy cabinet.’ Browne was told human rights could be discussed providing there was no focus on the North. He thus delivered a statement not explicitly referring to the North, but clearly directed at the regime.
A key issue was New Zealand’s desire for cross-accreditation via Seoul instead of Beijing. Browne noted New Zealand’s small size and, with its few Korean experts based in Seoul, accreditation from here was preferred rather than through Beijing. The North Koreans were ‘surprisingly receptive and said that it was up to New Zealand, causing our mouths to drop open’. However, upon departure Browne was told this ‘might be a bit difficult’, he responding that this ‘may create a problem’. After arriving back in Wellington Browne advised the Government to wait for Pyongyang’s response. He recommended that diplomatic relations be established, and briefed Prime Minister Helen Clark. After a few months of no correspondence New Zealand’s request was granted.
Overall, the visit was described as ‘robust, and at times verging on the confrontational’, with the North having expected the delegation to focus on establishing formal relations rather than registering and elaborating on wider issues. Pyongyang’s suggestion that the Dairy Board establish a joint venture was questioned with New Zealand required to provide the capital, expertise, product and marketing skills. The delegation concluded that if relations were established dialogue would ‘not be easy’. The ‘responses to our representations were largely formulaic’ with ‘little willingness to engage in genuine dialogue’, and Pyongyang’s view of the world was unfamiliar to New Zealand. For instance, it had an ‘acute and defiant suspicion’ of disarmament and arms control efforts. Moreover, the North Korean lead official ‘by his own oblique admission’ was ‘constrained in what he could say by the fact that all was being recorded to check that spokesmen stuck to the official line’. However, the visit was deemed ‘useful’. North Korea felt the talks facilitated ‘a frank and open exchange of views’, and provided ‘a very helpful opportunity’ for greater understanding.
According to Roy Ferguson (Ambassador in Seoul 1999-2002):
It took an awfully long time to negotiate with the North Koreans something they wanted, and we thought we were doing the North a favor. It was quite a difficult negotiation. New Zealand wanted to ensure that any issues were able to be discussed, including nuclear weapons and human rights. It was a fairly tough process but the DPRK did agree to cross-accreditation from Seoul rather than Beijing, one of the first countries to achieve this. This was extremely helpful as our Korean experts were in Seoul.
Moves to develop diplomatic relations with North Korea occurred through the prism of New Zealand playing a constructive role promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula. Relations with South Korea were strong, and the South was following its ‘sunshine’ policy of engagement with the North. Seoul encouraged its friends, especially its small Western friends, to increase their relations with the North. This would increase the incentives for the North to join the international community and try to ‘knit them in’ with the community, hence having more to win/lose. It would also encourage them to have relations with countries in addition to China.
Likewise, Kennedy notes that there was ‘great debate’ between New Zealand and North Korea about from where New Zealand should cross accredit. ‘Apart from showing solidarity with the South, this [accreditation via Seoul] had the practical advantage of allowing for our Korean speakers in the embassy to visit the North’. This was ‘somewhat of a coup’ given the DPRK sought Beijing, and other countries had accepted this.
New Zealand announced the establishment of diplomatic relations in March 2001; nearly 40 years after such relations were established with South Korea. It believed these would facilitate engagement with the North on various issues, and economic ties might develop. Ferguson undertook the first accreditation visit that November; leaving Pyongyang feeling the relationship was ‘treated seriously’.
According to Ferguson:
Credentials were presented at the National Assembly building via a very simple ceremony with the President [President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong-Nam] and a military officer. Somewhat ironically the DPRK permitted spouses, as well as staff, to accompany Ambassadors during the credentials ceremony, whereas in the ROK at that time Ambassadors were only accompanied by their diplomatic staff. It was very interesting being in Pyongyang, and very dark at night with little lighting.
A very formal meeting then took place, with a long preoration by the President followed by an opportunity to respond to all the points he had raised. In the course of the visit and dialogue with various officials it was noted that North Korea needed to fulfill its NPT [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] obligations, to both the international community and to New Zealand. There was real concern that the North was not living up to these. The North was quite reluctant initially to talk about human rights but New Zealand quietly persisted and the North eventually agreed. This established a precedent that New Zealand was not going to visit to just listen, but would raise issues, including uncomfortable ones. Many officials asked about bilateral assistance, such as in agriculture and medical equipment. Overall the visit was considered a success, and illustrated the power of diplomacy.
The DPRK sought a wide-ranging relationship but had ‘few specific ideas on how to achieve this’. Economic benefits were sought though the North Koreans ‘gave little indication’ they ‘understood the basic facts of international trade’. It was concluded that the North Koreans wanted a successful visit with the tone of meetings ‘courteous verging on the friendly’. The delegation hoped that New Zealand’s views were registered despite the ‘predictable’ nature of responses, and felt engagement was ‘more profitable than isolation of this pathetic yet dangerous regime’. However, patience would be needed as it was ‘only a small step forward on what will undoubtedly be a long and frustrating journey’.