By Laura McQuillan and Dan Satherley
Prime Minister John Key is backing away from his suggestion that New Zealand could go to South Korea's aid if North Korea carries through with its threats of war.
Mr Key is in China - one of few countries with which North Korea has ties - and faced questions yesterday about where New Zealand's allegiances would lie if weeks of rhetoric from North Korea's young leader Kim Jong-un came to fruition with an attack on South Korea or nearby US bases.
Speaking to a small group of New Zealand media, Mr Key suggested New Zealand could support old allies the US and Australia, which are likely to go to South Korea's aid, if it is attacked.
"I wouldn't want to speculate, but obviously we have got a long and proud history of coming to the support of South Korea," he said.
"Taken to the extreme, and without interventions and resolutions to the issues, that is of course possible."
But just hours later, he was distancing himself from those comments, telling a larger group of media that war was a remote possibility and New Zealand's potential involvement was so far down the track "you wouldn't really want to speculate on that".
He denied saying New Zealand would go where traditional allies the United States, Australia and South Korea go.
"What I said was if there was a situation that got to the extreme, New Zealand would consider its position."
Asked if that could see Kiwi troops deployed, Mr Key said: "I think you're just so far off the planet, don't worry about it."
New Zealand supported South Korea in the Korean War from 1950-1953, when 33 Kiwi soldiers were killed in battle.
Canterbury University associate professor and specialist in Chinese politics, Anne-Marie Brady, said on Firstline this morning that Mr Key had made a mistake in saying we would go to war with North Korea if the US and Australia did.
"I think he rather overstated things because ANZUS doesn't exist anymore. You'd have to question what were the terms in which he was saying New Zealand would be involved.
"New Zealand's involvement (in the Korean War) was to do with the United Nations and it was a United Nations effort to defend South Korea, so he's obviously said the wrong thing yet again, and he's backtracking."
She said if New Zealand did get involved it would only be at a "symbolic" level, and Mr Key's words were probably made in the interests of improving New Zealand-US relations, rather than a threat to North Korea.
Mr Key discussed the Korean standoff with China's new President Xi Jinping at a meeting on Sunday, and said the gravity of the situation was not lost on China.
"They are totally committed to peace and to a peaceful outcome so they are going to, I'm sure, work extremely hard with all the partners to ensure there's peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula."
Mr Xi called New Zealand and China "old friends", but Ms Brady says this doesn't really mean anything.
"That's very familiar political rhetoric from China. We shouldn't take that terribly seriously. China says those things to all sorts of countries.
"China is a lot more important to us than we are to them… they're our second-largest trading partner and New Zealand's looking to investment from China at the moment for things like the Christchurch rebuild and many other aspects in the economy."
Ms Brady says China could be the "game-changer" in any potential resolution to the conflict.
"China has the potential to make quite a difference in this situation, because they provide 90 percent of the fuel and 50 percent of the food to North Korea… I'm sure they'll be very cautious in using their influence, because China – like most of the players in this situation – don't want to change the status quo and see the collapse of the North Korean regime.
"North Korea is a buffer for China, and China would be wary of a united Korea. It's potentially the case that a united Korea would be more pro-China than more pro-US, but you can't guarantee that – especially in the immediate, post-war situation. And also, there would be a lot of refugees coming into China and throughout northeast Asia – a disastrous situation, so China would prefer the status quo."
3 News / NZN