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The Past and Present of Australia-DPRK Relations

by Leonid Petrov and Jacob Marchbourn, June 2002.

The history of relations between Australia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (more commonly referred to as North Korea, hereafter DPRK) is almost as odd and chequered as are the circumstances surrounding the re-opening of the North Korean Embassy in Canberra and Australian Embassy in Pyongyang. Despite the recent (8 May 2000) re-establishment of the diplomatic relations between two countries, the adverse international situation post September 11th has put the project into a state of limbo.

During the Korean War (1950-1953), approximately 17,000 Australian soldiers fought under the UN command against the DPRK, and around 339 of those died in battle. Australia was in fact the first country after the US to commit troops from the air force, navy and land army. Elderly North Koreans still remember the RAAF air raids which razed to the ground their capital, Pyongyang. At that time, Australia under the conservative Government of Robert Menzies was not at all friendly towards communism.

Things changed in 1972 when the Australian Labor Party took power for the first time in thirty years. The Gough Whitlam government, adopting a reformist foreign policy approach, in short order established diplomatic relations with mainland China and North Vietnam. But it took a longer time to reach a stage of mutual recognition with the DPRK, partly because of its continuing refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the South Korean government. Ultimately, on 31 July 1974 an agreement was signed which for the first time opened diplomatic relations between Australia and North Korea and led to the exchange of embassies. The DPRK was first to establish its embassy in Canberra on 31 December 1974, and Australia followed by opening its own embassy in Pyongyang on 30 April 1975.

Sadly, this positive stage in the relations between Australia and the DPRK were to last less than a year, and the embassy in Pyongyang was only open for a period of six months, before the DPRK decided unilaterally to, firstly, close its office in Canberra without warning, and then to expel the three Australian diplomats from Pyongyang six days later. The circumstances of such an abrupt suspension of relations are still shrouded in enigma, and could (or perhaps should) be made into a rather good farce movie.

At the time Pyongyang gave no explanation to Australia for either its unilateral withdrawal or expulsion of Australian diplomats, apart from claiming that the Australian government was unfriendly towards its embassy and that the Australian diplomats in Pyongyang were guilty of some offences against the state. The North Korean diplomats apparently mailed their official letter informing the Department of Foreign Affairs of their decision to close their own embassy while on route to Canberra Airport.

Why did the DPRK quit Australia in such a huff? Conventional wisdom has held for many years that the North Koreans were primarily interested in having a relationship with Australia in order to have a western, non-aligned ally in the United Nations. At that time both the ROK and the DPRK had competing resolutions tabled at the UN, and the DPRK desperately needed support to boost its flagging international prestige. However, the Australian representative instead lobbied for the pro-ROK resolution at the 30th session United Nations General Assembly. This apparently so angered the Pyongyang government that they no longer saw the diplomatic relationship as useful and consequently suspended it.

This was where things stood until November 2000, when Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer visited Pyongyang in order to further cement the newly blossoming diplomatic relationship, which had been publicly pronounced by both the DPRK and Australia in May of that year. At an official dinner for visiting Australian journalists held by the DPRK foreign ministry, one journalist asked what had happened in 1975.

The North Korean official proceeded to tell the story of the Panmunjom Axe Murders, when two US Army officers were murdered for their attempt to prune a tree growing in the Joint Security Area of the Truce Village, Panmunjom. These two officers had approached the tree with a South Korean tree-pruning crew holding axes. A group of North Korean officers took these axes and hacked the Americans to death, afterwards keeping the axes and displaying them in their oddly-named Peace Museum. The official went on to say the inscribed in the wooden handles of the axes were the words “Made in Austria”. According to this official, a translator made a mistake and reported that the axes were “made in Australia” and that this tragic lack in literacy led to the 25-year lull in ties between the two nations…

It is a good story. But the Panmunjom axe murders and tree pruning incident took place on 18 August 1976, roughly nine months after the Australian diplomats were expelled from Pyongyang.

Relations took a turn for the better in June 1999, when officials from the DPRK and Australia met for talks in Bangkok. On 28 June 2001 DPRK Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun visited Canberra, and he and Minister Downer signed an agreement that residential embassies would be exchanged between Canberra and Pyongyang. At that stage it was planned that North Korea would build its embassy first by the end of 2001, and Australia would follow in 2002-3.

The arrangements were already underway when the “Sunshine Policy” of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung suddenly stumbled over the hawkish diatribes of George W. Bush. In Bush’s now infamous 29 January State of the Union address 2002, he labeled North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, an “axis of evil”. Incidentally, on 20 February 2002, standing atop a sandbag bunker behind bulletproof glass, the US President got his first direct look at the DPRK. As Bush was peering through binoculars, a military officer pointed toward the P’anmungak Peace Museum that displays anti-US propaganda, including the axes (made in Austria!). "Hear that?" Bush called out from the camouflage-draped bunker, which sits about 100 meters from the border. "The axes that were used to slaughter US soldiers are in the Peace Museum. No wonder I think they're evil…"

Despite the new US Administration's hardening approach towards the regime of Kim Jong-il, the Australian Federal Government tried to stick with its policy of engaging with communist North Korea. But after September 11, Australia faithfully follows the US wherever it navigates. Canberra’s actions against the “evil regimes” in South Asia and the Middle East leave little hope for developing relations with “evil” North Korea. This may explain why the DPRK embassy’s opening is still bogged down in uncertainty. 

After a year of futile searching for an affordable block of land, North Korean diplomats, who arrived in Australia in 2001 for this purpose, finally decided to rent a building in O’Malley, a district of Canberra inhabited by “lesser” embassies (ironically, it seemed that the North Korean embassy would lie on the same street as, and perhaps even between, the embassies of Iran and Iraq). The lease application was already with the local town council when the media became aware of protests expressed by “a neighbor resident” against the decision to allow North Koreans to set up their embassy there. Ostensibly, the parking arrangements and traffic concerns were the bone of contention. 

But both Australian and DPRK officials are trying hard to present the current situation as normal and amicable, with a DFAT source saying that it is “was normal for any new diplomatic mission to require a period of negotiation.” Meanwhile Australia’s plans to establish its own embassy in Pyongyang have moved from the time frame of 2002-3, to the somewhat more vague “at some stage”. As for Messrs Kim and Rim, the two North Korean diplomats posted to Canberra, to pass the time they spend their weekends at Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin, fishing for carp and waiting for new developments in Australia-DPRK relations.

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