Seeking constructive dialogue with North Korea: Paul Bellamy outlines unofficial interaction between New Zealanders and the Pyongyang regime.

AuthorBellamy, Paul

Unofficial interaction between New Zealanders and North Koreans has shaped bilateral relations between the two countries, and continues to do so. Although caution is prudent, such unofficial contact can help lay the foundations for constructive dialogue, greater understanding and formal diplomacy. Visiting diplomats have interacted skilfully with their North Korean counterparts, and have been treated well. Constructive engagement and dialogue is critical to promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula, especially with heightened tensions. Active moves by the international community and Pyongyang to help peacefully resolve tensions using such tools are much more desirable than resort to a high-risk use of force.


Unofficial interaction between New Zealand and North Korea has helped to shape the relationship between the two countries. Indeed, with diplomatic relations, which were only established in 2001, limited and likely to remain so into the near future, it is currently the main form of direct interaction. Although caution is prudent, such unofficial contacts can help lay the foundations for constructive dialogue, a greater understanding and diplomacy.

The New Zealand-Democratic People's Republic of Korea Society has promoted bilateral relations since the early 1970s. South Korean Christians encouraged its creation, when they informed the Reverend Don Borrie, the society's chair from the late 1970s and national president from 1989, that North Korean Christians had contacted them and sought better relations with New Zealand. Society members subsequently travelled to North Korea, including a 1979 visit during which they met its deputy prime minister. Others also visited, including Member of Parliament Warren Freer.

In 1980 Freer visited again and in the following year a delegation attended the 1981 Pyongyang Youth Conference, while a group of 21 New Zealanders seeking to learn more about the North undertook a sixteen-day visit. Their activities included trade discussions and meeting members of the Korean Christian Confederation. Journalists visited in 1983 and 1984. In 1986 Borrie was offered work in the North, and in late 1987 the society reported that since 1974 nearly 40 people had visited the North through tours.

Diplomatic contact gradually developed with increased interaction. During 1992 both countries' ministers of foreign affairs met in Indonesia, while a Whitireia performing arts group excelled at a 1993 Pyongyang international arts festival. Another journalist visited in 1997. In 1998 Track 2 dialogue occurred, and in 1999 Wellington decided to undertake informal dialogue at ambassadorial level via diplomatic representatives in Jakarta.

Diplomatic relations

Moves towards diplomatic relations occurred following the end of the Cold War and Seoul's advocacy of dialogue, a position that attracted international support. Wellington felt that diplomacy would allow dialogue on significant issues, and help Pyongyang engage in a more normal way with the international community. Unofficial interaction, particularly via the friendship society, helped provide the foundations for the diplomatic relations announced in March 2001.

In November 2001 Roy Ferguson, the ambassador in Seoul from 1999-2002, made his first accreditation visit to Pyongyang. According to his personal reflections, he was 'mentally braced for a fairly difficult time', especially as he would raise human rights. Indeed he had to 'push quite hard' for discussions...

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