A Cautious Start: Paul Bellamy Reflects on the Early Years of New Zealand-North Korea Relations

Article excerpt

New Zealand--North Korean relations were challenging during the 1970s but provided foundations for later diplomatic relations established in 2001. Against the Cold War's background, New Zealand's position was primarily shaped by the view that the authoritarian regime's foreign policy was aggressive and unsophisticated, the priority given to relations with South Korea, and the stance of friends and allies. The New Zealand--DPRK Society played a key role promoting relations between both countries during this period. Bilateral relations continue to be challenging and caution remains important in interacting with the North. However, the need for dialogue fostering mutual trust, transparency, and co-operation is even more important today.

Gradual moves to build New Zealand-Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) relations during the 1970s provided the foundations for later diplomatic relations. With increased interaction between the two countries this year, a review of New Zealand's position and factors shaping the relationship is timely. The New Zealand government's perspective is mainly derived from archival material held by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, New Zealand Immigration Service and Security Intelligence Service. The activities of the New Zealand--DPRK Society, which promotes relations between the two countries, are also outlined using material from the society's archives. (1)

The 1970s witnessed the promotion of bilateral relations, generally unsuccessfully, by North Korea and some New Zealanders. The North Korean ambassador in China met Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs Joe Walding during his March and October 1973 Chinese visits, though the government was not 'particularly anxious' for a proposed North Korean visit to New Zealand 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 in the following year. Rosenberg wrote that his impression was 'of an overwhelming economic success'. Indeed North Korea was 'one of the most potent sources of optimism for the possibility of a world free from hunger'. With the society hoping to establish branches throughout New Zealand, a Christchurch branch was formed in March 1974, amidst what it claimed was 'somewhat distorted' media coverage of this development. A Wellington branch followed in September. Influenced by a desire to avoid left-wing ideological splits based on Chinese or Soviet interpretations of socialism, the society gave priority to forming a small national network over securing mass membership.

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After Pyongyang asked the provisional committee if a delegation could be received, Walding said in May 1974 that a private, society-sponsored delegation entering on special travel documents was possible. Four North Koreans duly arrived in Christchurch during July to promote relations with a cultural exhibition. The society and Chinese diplomats met them. Their three-week stay included a visit to Wellington. At the exhibitions opening, Willmott said that it marked 'the very beginning of what we hope will be increasing exchange between us'. He expressed his delight that 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 of Foreign Affairs 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'. …