Opinion & Analysis

NZ-South Korea relations: fostered in conflict, progressed in peace

Seventy years after the Korean War Armistice was signed, journalist Shannon Redstall and visual journalist Chris Skelton travelled to South Korea to examine New Zealand's connections to South Korea; a relationship fostered in conflict, progressed in peace, and set to continue expanding for decades to come. Their trip was made possible by an Asia New Zealand Foundation media travel grant.
Things feel difficult in New Zealand at the moment. Food is expensive, hospital waitlists are long, our children aren’t learning as much in school as they should, but nothing makes you realise how good you’ve got it than sitting down with a 92-year-old who looks you in the eye and says “I am very pleased that I’m the last one in my family that went to a war,”.

It’s estimated around three million Koreans from both sides, including one million civilians, were killed in the conflict, a higher per-capita mortality than either World War I or World War II. 

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers, around 37,000 Americans and 45 of the more than 6000 New Zealanders who contributed to the conflict, lost their lives.

Before we left Christchurch, we interviewed Forbes Taylor and Victor Pidgeon, two of the less than 200 New Zealand veterans who are still alive. 

The men shared their experiences from a bloody and painful war, but they also shared their amazement at the progress that has seen the Republic of Korea go from a country in ruin, to a thriving society - rich in culture and with one of the strongest economies in the region.

A statue showing a large soldier embracing a smaller one

The Statue of Brothers at the War Memorial of Korea in Yongsan-dong, Seoul (Photo: Chris Skelton)

The progress and productivity of the Korean people was evident as soon as we landed in Seoul: towering buildings, elaborate bridges, and a comprehensive underground network. A city raised from the rubble of seventy years ago. If our Government still needs inspiration for the second harbour crossing, they should ask their Korean counterparts. 

From the first day, we were mesmerised by the bustling, vibrant city and its people, who were quick to offer a smile, or an anecdote of how they knew about New Zealand: a dream destination, a study location, but most often, a recollection of the war.

“Where are you from?” an elderly man asked us on the subway. 

“New Zealand,” we said, and he broke into a grin explaining proudly how he fought in the Korean war alongside the United Nations troops and thanking us for our country’s contribution.

This gratitude became a common theme of our reporting. The contribution of the New Zealand Defence Force, starting in 1950, was far from a distant memory. 

Not only has it not been forgotten, but I got the sense it is a relationship of importance for Koreans, one needed to be actively cultivated, appreciated and respected. 

This is evident at the grandiose War Memorial of Korea, where the flag of each contributing country flies proudly atop a detailed plaque stating “ka maumahara tonu tātou ki a rātou”, “we will remember them”.

It was also raised by distinguished international relations professor Lee Geun from Seoul National University. He told us South Korea is indebted to countries like New Zealand for helping their nation go from one of the poorest in the world following the Korean War to a top 10 global power, something that has been achieved in his lifetime.

“I know that violence is the thing that we should avoid at all costs. And I know the importance of freedom … I feel very appreciative of the contribution of New Zealand in developing the so-called liberal international order, and Korea wants to pay [the favour] back.”

Shannon sitting across from international relations professor Lee Geun in an office full of books

Shannon interviewing international relations professor Lee Geun from Seoul National University. Image: Chris Skelton

Aotearoa’s ongoing commitment to the relationship is exemplified by the 12 NZDF troops we have stationed in South Korea, the second largest contribution of any country, second to the United States. 

Crossing into the demilitarised zone and watching the enormous North Korean flag towering above its propaganda village in the distance was a poignant reminder of why New Zealand joined the fight all those years ago, and still continues to this day.

“It's not a dangerous place, but it's a place that there's a high degree of risk,” Captain Greg Mildon told us.

Lest we forget the trauma our soldiers and seamen endured fighting to keep the North Koreans above the 38th Parallel seven decades earlier. 

This came to the surface when we had the privilege of walking through the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan with two Kiwi veterans, John Barnett and Ronald Pocock, who made the trip to Korea to commemorate the anniversary. 

Two New Zealand war veterans arm in arm in a cemetery in Busan

New Zealand Korean War veterans John Barnett and Ronald Pocock walking arm in arm through the the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan. Image: Chris Skelton

Ninety one year old John Barnett broke down for the first time seeing the grave of his “great friend”  and casualty of the war, Bob Marchioni. 

The pair were both 19 years old when they served together on the frigate Rotoiti. Marchioni was the ship’s barber and had cut Barnett's hair the day he was shot and killed by enemy fire.

“[His grave] was something I’d wanted to see for a long time. It’s fantastic to see him here. I think of him most days,” he told me.

While the pain is still raw for the dwindling number Kiwi veterans who are still alive today, it is often considered “the forgotten war” and Chris and I wanted to do our part to ensure that memory is kept alive. We didn’t expect our intention to hit home so quickly; just weeks after returning from South Korea, we got an email to say Forbes Taylor had passed away. 

“Many people have commented to us on your article and Chris’ s photos in The Press on 22 July - we are so proud of the legacy that now leaves of Dad’s recent recollections of the Korean War and the 70th anniversary of the Armistice. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect,” his daughter wrote to us.

It was clear that the sacrifices of men like Taylor allowed for the New Zealand-Korea relationship to blossom to where it is today. 

Economically, culturally, politically, our countries stand side by side and top Kiwi officials and business leaders told us they are keenly aware of how much there is to share with and learn from the Republic of Korea.

We hope our coverage has gone a little way to helping everyday New Zealanders reflect on the significant contribution to world peace made by those who fought and realise they would be welcomed to Korea with open arms, largely because of the bravery of 6000 young men many years ago.


A new meaning for K-pop: Kiwi businesses proving popular in South Korea

Korea 70 years on: Veterans remember the war that’s never ended

Enduring Kiwi generosity giving opportunity to Korean children

Korean War pain still raw for Kiwi vets on armistice anniversary

Life in the DMZ: Meet the Kiwi soldiers on the front line of the Korean War

Our media travel grants offer New Zealand journalists the chance to travel independently to Asia to research and prepare stories – to help demystify Asia for New Zealand audiences.

The Foundation's media programme helps New Zealand journalists cover stories that shed light on Asia and on New Zealand’s ties to the region. We support journalists to build their knowledge of Asia by providing media travel grants, internships in Asian newsrooms and fellowships for senior journalists.