Europe’s North Korea moment
Yoon Young-kwan, Professor Emeritus at Seoul National University /Reuters
When South Korean President Moon Jae-in holds his first summit with the EU on October 19, North Korea will be at the top of the agenda. Many in Seoul hope that Europe will take a step forward and become more involved in dealing with Pyongyang, because when it comes to the current diplomatic process taking place in the Korean Peninsula, the EU is clearly punching below its weight. This is unfortunate, since Brussels can play an important role as the international community seeks denuclearization of North Korea and inter-Korean reconciliation moves ahead. It is time for Europe to embrace this role.
The EU is a diplomatic powerhouse. Brussels helped broker the nuclear deal with Iran. It is one of the leading voices in the International Atomic Energy Agency. When it comes to East Asia in general and the Korean Peninsula in particular, it is seen as a model of reconciliation. In other words, Europe’s voice matters.
But the EU has been mostly silent as diplomacy powers ahead in the Korean Peninsula. It is true that EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini regularly issues statements in which she expresses Europe’s support for a negotiated solution to North Korea’s nuclear issue. Brussels, however, should move beyond these bland declarations and explicitly support a peace declaration to end the Korean War – as well as a peace treaty if parties can reach that stage.
The EU could also offer to resume its political dialogue with North Korea. Brussels and Pyongyang last held an official meeting in 2015. At the time, neither South Korea nor the United States were willing to maintain an official dialogue with North Korea.
Now North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is holding meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump, South Korea’s Moon and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
The EU is an economic superpower as well. It remains the second-largest economy in the world. In the past, Brussels has dangled other economic goodies as a carrot to induce reform in countries such as China, Vietnam or Myanmar. It has also used sanctions to punish bad behavior. North Korea itself is a case in point. Since 2016, when Pyongyang conducted its fourth and fifth nuclear tests, Brussels has significantly ramped up its sanctions against the nuclear state. Today, its sanctions are as stringent as Washington’s.
Now that Kim has met with Trump and Moon and with Seoul increasing exchanges with Pyongyang, the EU should beef up its humanitarian and social engagement with North Korea. The low-hanging fruit is aid. Europe has dramatically reduced food, medicine and similar transfers to North Korea as part of its sanctions regime. In recent months, European NGOs have found it increasingly difficult to operate in the country for this reason. Ordinary North Koreans have been the biggest casualties of these restrictions.
Although Kim has shifted his emphasis towards economic development, North Korea is still in desperate need of know-how about the market economy, modern business practices and how states transition away from a command economy. Enter Europe. The EU should provide more education opportunities to North Korean officials and university students. Also, Central and Eastern European countries that moved from communism to capitalism should share their valuable experience that Western countries lack.
Then the case of the UK, London also worked closely with Washington throughout Libya’s denuclearization process. British experts participated in the dismantlement of the country’s nuclear program. They were also involved in the transportation of nuclear materials and verification of Tripoli’s compliance with the agreement. The UK has a less problematic relationship with North Korea compared to other nuclear powers such as the United States or China. London also has an embassy in Pyongyang. It could present itself as a more honest broker in the denuclearization of North Korea.
European policymakers might question the value of the EU taking these steps. After all, Europe is grappling with Russian interventionism in its internal affairs, growing populism across the continent, and an ongoing migration crisis. Getting more involved in the North Korean nuclear issue might seem an unnecessary overstretch.Ultimately, pressure alone cannot work.
The international community needs to simultaneously offer the necessary incentives for Pyongyang to take real steps toward denuclearization.
The EU is in a position to offer some of them, starting with greater humanitarian assistance and political engagement. It should take advantage of this and support diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula with concrete actions.