New Zealand-North Korea: towards constructive engagement: Paul Bellamy surveys interaction between two countries that have limited contact.

AuthorBellamy, Paul

According to former official historian Ian McGibbon, New Zealand did not recognise the 1948 establishment of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), which it considered a 'Russian puppet' rather than a legitimate regime, and the Korean War 'cemented its hostility to the regime'.

Bilateral contact remained limited for decades after the conflict. For instance, Gerald McGhie, New Zealand's ambassador to South Korea from 1996 to 1999, did not have any contact with the North. However, in Seoul he was well aware of the tensions on the peninsula, and understood the importance of constructive dialogue to peacefully resolve them. During his posting, inter-Korean relations tended to be dominated for a lengthy period by the Asian financial crisis. But relations with Pyongyang remained as an important counterpoint in Seoul's political agenda. His deputy, Heather Riddell, did visit North Korea during 1997 for a Korean Energy Development Organisation ceremony, becoming the first New Zealand diplomat to do so. Her time in North Korea was, however, very brief and dedicated solely to marking the start of construction work on the power facility.

Interaction ultimately increased with moves to establish diplomatic relations, these coming to fruition in March 2001. According to the personal observations of those making official visits to the North from 2002 to 2005, generally positive but uninformed views of New Zealand existed in Pyongyang. Wellington's foreign policy was viewed as independent because of its anti-nuclear stance. Overall, visits were deemed constructive, with visiting officials being treated well and their North Korean counterparts displaying professionalism.

Visits were carefully managed, and delegations could only see those who the regime trusted. While requests to talk to the military were declined, delegations met with the relevant North Korean diplomats. Itineraries were produced late in the visiting process, but once the schedule was in place it was generally followed. New Zealand's use of its own Korean speakers for translation was successful, as they conveyed comments effectively and captured their nuances. This also overcame a tendency by the North's interpreters to add their own angle when interpreting the ambassador's remarks, soften key points or exclude parts. At the conclusion of one visit, a North Korean deputy minister observed that he well understood the points made, and wished other delegations were so effective in communicating their views.

Interaction with the North Koreans was very formal. They would invite the visitor to speak for about 30 minutes and then respond to this speech for a similar length of time. Responses were often formulaic, with statements sometimes simply read. Inflated rhetoric could make it difficult to have conversations based on facts. For example, discussions on the North's nuclear programme occasionally departed from addressing the issue to Pyongyang's insistence that the programme was for defence in meeting the US threat.

Distrustful stance

Dialogue was further complicated by a climate of distrust regarding Westerners. North Koreans did not wish to expose themselves and their families to punishment--they were aware that everyone was monitoring each other's comments. Hence, they focused on making the right statements, such as quoting their Great Leader and Dear Leader. This could make conversation difficult, though dinners occasionally provided the opportunity for more free-flowing talk. Despite such challenges diplomats from both countries interacted skilfully and constructively, as was further evident during later visits, the most recent in 2014, when New Zealand delegations were treated professionally and courteously. They were important opportunities to seek first-hand information, and to directly convey New Zealand's belief that Pyongyang's nuclear weapons...

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