Commentary: Europe’s North Korea moment

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.

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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 economic engagement, market access and 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.

It may be necessary for the EU to continue economic sanctions until North Korea takes some critical steps toward denuclearization. However, increasing humanitarian aid and supporting NGOs and UN agencies operating across North Korea outside the range of international sanctions would be a low-cost confidence-building measure. Existing sanctions allow exceptions on humanitarian grounds. Ordinary North Koreans would understand that the EU is not targeting them, but rather their government’s behavior.

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.

It would also be useful for the EU to make it clear to North Korea that Brussels would begin to lift sanctions if Pyongyang takes critical measures to denuclearize. The UK and France could also take a more technical role if Pyongyang indeed moves down that path. Both of them are nuclear powers that have been reducing their stockpile of nuclear warheads since the end of the Cold War. They have experience in the dismantlement of warheads, and in the transportation, storage and disposal of nuclear materials. The United States and Russia aside, few countries can match the experience with dismantlement and disarmament that British and French scientists have. They could be part of international teams involved in the verification of North Korea’s denuclearization.

In 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.

This view, however, is debatable. The EU has long said that it wanted to play a role in Asian security affairs. It cannot afford to opt out of a process that could potentially bring lasting peace to the Korean Peninsula, especially since South Korea is one of a small number of so-called “like-minded” countries with whom the EU has a formal strategic partnership. At a time when Seoul is driving a process to solve one of Asia’s longest security problems, Brussels should support its partner.

Even self-interest calls for Europe’s greater involvement in the current diplomatic process. There is a nightmare scenario of militant groups exploding a dirty bomb in a European capital with materials that originate in North Korea. Reducing the reasons for North Korea to ship nuclear materials to the Middle East by supporting its denuclearization and economic reform makes sense from a European perspective.

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.

About the Author

Yoon Young-kwan is Professor Emeritus at Seoul National University and former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Republic of Korea. Ramon Pacheco Pardo is KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Reader at King’s College London. @rpachecopardo

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.