Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

When Diplomatic Breakups Occur: Paul Bellamy Traces the Troubled Course of Australian-North Korean Relations since 1974, and Its Impact on New Zealand

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

When Diplomatic Breakups Occur: Paul Bellamy Traces the Troubled Course of Australian-North Korean Relations since 1974, and Its Impact on New Zealand

Article excerpt

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the sudden break in diplomatic relations between Australia and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea or the DPRK). This widely publicised and controversial break, along with somewhat bizarre developments, occurred only shortly after the establishment of relations in 1974 and helped lay the foundations for a challenging future; official relations did not resume until May 2000. Canberra hoped that New Zealand would also recognise the North. Developments were watched closely across the Tasman Sea, and they ultimately helped to discourage Wellington from taking similar steps. Indeed, official relations with North Korea would only be announced in March 2001.


Canberra established relations with Pyongyang against the background of Australia's previous involvement in the Korean War. After increasing tension, North Korea had invaded the Republic of Korea (South Korea or the ROK) on 25 June 1950. The United States asked the United Nations to intervene against Pyongyang and Australia became the second nation, behind the United States, to commit personnel from all three armed services to help Seoul. Fighting lasted until armistice negotiations concluded in July 1953 at Panmunjom, and the military demarcation line of separation divided the Korean peninsula. Australian forces remained in Korea as part of the multinational peacekeeping force until 1957. More than 18,000 Australians served in the Korean War, of whom 340 were killed. Australia subsequently established Rill diplomatic relations with Seoul in 1961.

On winning election in 1972 the Australian Labor Party gave priority to affording diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic of China and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). Although North Korea and its allies continued to deny the legitimacy of the South, Canberra felt there were grounds for establishing diplomatic relations with Pyongyang as well. Peninsula tensions had declined somewhat with the 4 July 1972 Joint Statement by both Koreas providing an avenue for significant political talks, while the North's purchasing of Western technology encouraged expectations that there would be greater economic openness. The Labor government considered that North Korea's on-going diplomatic isolation was anomalous, and that wider acceptance of the reality that there were two Korean governments would promote the peninsula's peace and stability while not prejudicing future steps towards reunification. Furthermore, there was some public support for North Korea with the Australian DPRK Friendship and Cultural Society created during the early 1970s in Melbourne available to promote bilateral relations.

Ties established

After eight months of negotiations in Jakarta diplomatic relations were established on 31 July 1974. The announcement's timing was apparently influenced by Canberra wishing to avoid 'any unpleasant repercussions' for an Australian trade survey team in South Korea until 27 July. North Korea established an embassy in Canberra that December, and Australia did likewise in Pyongyang during April 1975. The Australian minister of foreign affairs visited Pyongyang for talks with his counterpart the following month.

The establishment of Australian-North Korea relations was major news in New Zealand, the Dominion reporting it under the front page banner 'Wellington set to follow Canberra into Korea'. Prime Minister Norman Kirk said that the move was important, with the friends of both Koreas responsible for helping build confidence and goodwill between them, and that New Zealand would eventually wish to establish similar relations. In December 1973 New Zealand officials had felt there was a quiet move towards official relations, thereby strengthening the argument that two Koreas existed de facto, a reality that required recognition. Likewise, there was a feeling that urging Pyongyang to adopt less provocative policies without diplomatic relations had achieved little, and non-recognition was inconsistent with the recognition of North Vietnam, which had engaged in at least equally provocative behaviour. …

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