Their specialties include Korean folklore, philosophy, classical literature, history and education. They were to be accompanied by two "minders," as is standard for North Korean groups traveling abroad.
One of the academics due to travel was Jo Hui Sung, who has some renown in his field: the history of the Koguryo era, one of the three kingdoms on the Korean Peninsula until the 7th century.
But the New Zealand government rejected the visa applications last Friday to comply with sanctions against North Korea, according to people familiar with the process. "They said it was because of the United Nations sanctions," said one, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to give details of the decision.
As Kim Jong Un's regime has continued to defy the international community by launching missiles, the United Nations has imposed sanctions to try to cut off North Korea's ability to buy parts for its weapons program by clamping down on both logistics and financing.
At the same time, the United States has imposed much more aggressive unilateral sanctions against North Korea, blacklisting individual people and companies that the Treasury Department claims are involved in running or financing the weapons program.
On Wednesday, the State Department's top envoy for East Asian affairs, Susan Thornton, told reporters that the United States was seeking possible ways to suspend North Korea from Asia's biggest security group, the 27-nation ASEAN Regional Forum. The group, which includes the United States and South Korea, is scheduled to hold its annual gathering Monday in the Philippines.
None of the sanctions in place or planned — whether unilateral or multilateral — have targeted humanities professors.
New Zealand's Foreign Ministry declined to comment, referring inquiries to the immigration department.
"Immigration New Zealand can confirm that these visa applications were declined for not meeting immigration instructions," said Marc Piercey, a spokesman for the immigration department. He declined to comment further for "legal and privacy reasons."
The visa decision was made just days after Recorded Future, a threat intelligence firm, released a report saying that North Koreans were accessing the Internet through a handful of countries, including New Zealand. However, it was not clear whether the report had anything to do with the decision.
The International Society for Korean Studies' two-day conference was held at the University of Auckland and was attended by 130 academics from around the world, including the United States, Europe, China and South Korea.
The Japan-based group convenes the conference every other year; the last event was held in Austria in 2015. Twelve North Koreans, many of whom were slated to travel to New Zealand this week, attended.
Proponents of engagement were dismayed by the news.
"If you're interested in bringing about gradual change in North Korea, surely one of the best ways to do so is by bringing out as many people as possible and exposing them to the outside world," said Stephen Epstein, who teaches Korean studies at Victoria University of Wellington. He has helped host previous groups of North Koreans to New Zealand.
New Zealand has hosted other delegations of North Koreans, including three English professors who traveled to a New Zealand university last year, and two North Koreans who attended a study group of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific in Auckland in March.
But the New Zealand government has also denied visa applications from North Koreans in the past.
As North Korea advances its missile program and touts its ability to strike the U.S. mainland, Washington has been leading an international campaign to isolate Pyongyang.
It is pressuring foreign governments that allow North Korean workers into their countries to stop the practice — labor exports have become a major source of hard currency for the regime. It has also been urging other governments to cut off diplomatic relations with North Korea.