A former Katikati resident and a senior NZ Defence Force officer is a regular caller to North Korea using a special hotline from the heavily militarised border with South Korea.

NZ Defence Force Flight Lieutenant Daniel Garnett said he called North Korea on the hotline at least twice a day.

"We conduct phone checks with the North Korean side twice a day and I regularly pass on or receive messages from them via the hotline," Garnett said.

He was also the assistant joint duty officer in the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission Secretariat.


"Our team talks to them all the time, though we send a lot more messages than we receive," Tauranga-born Garnett, who grew up in Katikati, said.

Regarded as a bellwether of inter-Korean relations, the North Korean hotline at Panmunjom, the truce village inside the demilitarised zone was reactivated in mid-2018 following the warming of relations between the once-hostile neighbours.

Before that North Korea had not answered the hotline for more than five years, in retaliation for the United Nations sanctions imposed on Pyongyang following a nuclear test on February 2013.

Since posted to South Korea last October, Garnett said he had passed on messages informing North Korea of the use of helicopters in the Demilitarised Zone, repatriation of remains of North Korean troops killed during the Korean War.

Messages were also about meetings and routine building maintenance at the border.

Garnett said the calls were scripted and messages relayed in English and Korean.

Because they spoke often, Garnett and the Korean People's Army (North Korean) language specialists now recognised each other's voices.

"We know each other's names," he said.

"Some are friendlier than others – one greeted me with 'Happy New Year' in January."

Flight Lieutenant Daniel Garnett and assistant joint duty officer in the UN Command Military Armistice Commission Secretariat in South Korea, ringing North Korea on a hotline. Photo /Supplied
Flight Lieutenant Daniel Garnett and assistant joint duty officer in the UN Command Military Armistice Commission Secretariat in South Korea, ringing North Korea on a hotline. Photo /Supplied

Once, when the phone line was down, Garnett had no choice but to pass the message "the old way".

This meant walking to within a metre of the demarcation line that splits South and North Korea, reading out the message in English and letting a translator read it in Korean.

Garnett was based at Camp Bonifas, a UN Command military post 400m south of the southern boundary of the Demilitarised Zone.

He was part of a six-member team that monitored the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement between North and South Korea at the Joint Security Area in the zone.

As part of his role, he helped supervise access to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom.

"New Zealand gets an incredible degree of exposure through this mission since we fill several roles and interact with a wide range of stakeholders. It is very rewarding," he said.

In the latest sign of increasingly warm relations, Garnett said all weapons had been removed and all guard towers abandoned in the Joint Security Area.

This was the point along the 250km-long Demilitarised Zone, where South and North Korean soldiers used to stand face to face armed with automatic rifles, he said.

"Only 30 security personnel remain and we share security footage with the North Koreans. It is truly remarkable," Garnett said.

The United States-led UNCMAC Secretariat monitored and supervised the 1953 Armistice Agreement that suspended hostilities between North Korea and United Nations forces defending South Korea.

The NZDF had a long history of involvement in South Korea since the start of the war in 1950 and had contributed to the UNCMAC-S since 2003.

It had seven personnel there now, monitoring the armistice and performing operational, education, liaison and corridor control functions for the UNCMAC-S.

Flight Lieutenant Garnett joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 2013, after a short career in science, and was a pilot from No.3 Squadron

While his career had taken him elsewhere, he had never forgotten his earlier years in Katikati.

"It was a great place to grow up," he said. "While I'm thankful to friends and family who encouraged me to branch out and go to university, Katikati remains home."