Simon Draper: Why North Korea matters to New Zealanders

We've had a long period of stability in this part of the world - is that all about to change?

We've had a long period of stability in this part of the world - is that all about to change?

OPINION: In previous columns, I've talked about how our research shows that while most New Zealanders view Asia as important to New Zealand's future, two-thirds of us say we know little or nothing about the region.

Our Perceptions of Asia survey also tells us that much of what New Zealanders do know about Asia comes from the media. The other key way we learn about the region is through personal interactions – which is easy enough to achieve if you're attending school or working in a large office in "super-diverse" Auckland, but more challenging if you're living in a small community.

Over the past two decades, the survey has identified strong links between media coverage and the public's understanding of Asia – and their feelings about the region.

Take 2013, when media coverage of the Fonterra "botulism scare" saw New Zealanders' recall of Asia-related business and economic issues nearly double from the previous year.

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Conflicts and disasters have also tended to feature prominently in the minds of Kiwis when the survey has asked them to remember media coverage of Asia.

Simon Draper: "New Zealanders obviously don't need to lie awake at night worrying a missile is about to obliterate us."
SUPPLIED

Simon Draper: "New Zealanders obviously don't need to lie awake at night worrying a missile is about to obliterate us."

This might be true of any region in the world – but I'd argue that it's particularly troubling in the case of Asia because the pace of change in the region is so fast and our collective baseline knowledge was lower to begin with.

Most of us didn't grow up learning anything substantial about Asia in school and we don't get much exposure to popular culture from the region, so it's hard to put what we read or hear in the media into a wider context of knowledge.

So there's a lot resting on the shoulders of New Zealand journalists, while newsrooms continue to become more pressurised.

The media drives a lot of our perceptions about Asia, including North Korea.
DENIS BALIBOUSE/REUTERS

The media drives a lot of our perceptions about Asia, including North Korea.

Against this backdrop, the Asia New Zealand Foundation is creating a new Asia Media Centre to support the media's coverage, and help interpret events in the region from a New Zealand perspective. We've been talking to journalists about how we can help improve the breadth and depth of coverage, and increase the range of voices we hear talking about Asia issues.

This centre will build on the Foundation's investment over two decades in supporting New Zealand journalists to travel to Asia on reporting assignments. New Zealand hasn't had a dedicated foreign correspondent in Asia for more than a decade, so we've helped plug some of that gap.

A current example of an Asia issue that's getting media time here is the nuclear threat from the DPRK, otherwise known as North Korea.

If you watched the leaders' debates on TV in the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed that foreign policy barely came up. When it did come up, it was about Trump or North Korea – and the two in combination.

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At an election panel discussion held by Bell Gully in Wellington last week, one of the panellists even described an escalation of the DPRK nuclear threat as a factor that might significantly influence the polls.

A question that hasn't been explored much is why New Zealand cares. New Zealanders obviously don't need to lie awake at night worrying a DPRK missile is about to obliterate us. So why should we be worried?

North Korea is concerning our politicians for two reasons. One is around whether New Zealand will be drawn into a conflict again, spending blood and money in someone else's war. Certainly the question line in the leaders' debates has been around what would New Zealand do if called on for troops.

But there's a second concern that isn't being talked about much in the public space.

Seven of our top 10 trading partners – including China, Japan and South Korea – are in Asia. What happens in a war? Will people still want to buy our products? What happens to the ships carrying goods to and from the region? Will shipping stop totally? What happens to the banking systems?

Events in the region also concern the growing number of New Zealanders with family ties to Asia. The last census counted nearly 130,000 New Zealand residents who had been born in China, South Korea or Japan.

The fact is that most New Zealanders have grown up in a time of unusual stability in our region. When we think about North Korea, it's mostly theoretical. Our media will play a vital role in drawing the dots for us should things, as I expect, become less stable in the region. Markets and voters loathe instability, and what happens in the markets, especially in Asia, now affects all New Zealanders.

* Simon Draper is the executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

 - Stuff

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