The EU is irrelevant in the Korean Peninsula, right? Wrong

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A North Korean military honor guard marches past during a welcome ceremony for EU officials on 02 May 2001. [EPA PHOTO POOL AP/GREG BAKER/MY/GB/rab]

Despite having no military presence or alliances, and very modest economic links with North Korea, the EU plays a large role in the Korean Peninsula, argues Ramon Pacheco Pardo.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo is KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies & Senior Lecturer at King’s College London

The EU has no military presence or alliances in Northeast Asia. European countries have very modest economic links with North Korea, so their sanctions have limited impact on the Kim Jong-un regime. And Brussels has been excluded from multilateral talks to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue. In other words, the EU has no role to play in Korean Peninsula affairs and should refrain from intervening in them.

Except that the final line above is wrong. For the EU plays and should continue to play an important role as the international community seeks ways to deal with Pyongyang’s nuclear and weapons of mass destruction programmes.

Indeed, the ‘critical engagement’ policy towards North Korea that the EU has been implementing over the past few years provides Brussels with leverage. The policy mixes carrots such as dialogues, diplomatic links, and aid with sticks including sanctions.

It thus balances the engagement that is the only realistic way to influence North Korea’s behaviour, with the pressure necessary to affect Pyongyang’s calculus regarding its weapons programmes.

Furthermore, the EU’s ‘critical engagement’ mimics President Moon Jae-in’s approach towards the Kim Jong-un regime, which only reinforces the importance of Brussels as South Korea seeks to engage its Northern neighbour.

To understand why the EU is a relevant player in the Korean Peninsula, it is first necessary to take a step back and understand why the EU ought to care about North Korea’s behaviour.

To begin with, Brussels should be wary of Pyongyang’s threat to the nuclear non-proliferation regime and ongoing sales of nuclear know-how and weapons of mass destruction to the Middle East. The former poses a threat to international governance and could encourage other would-be nuclear powers. The latter is a destabilising factor in an already unstable region perilously close to Europe.

Furthermore, the EU should care about the North Korean threat because its own ‘pivot to Asia’ demands paying close attention to security problems afflicting East Asia. Brussels cannot afford to simply focus on strengthening trade and investment links with the region while looking the other way on security matters.

Indeed, South Korea arguably is the EU’s most reliable strategic partner in Asia, so threats to its security should be a priority in Brussels.

In order to deal with the North Korean threat, the EU can certainly continue to use sanctions and forceful interdiction of Pyongyang’s weapons and nuclear technology shipments. They signal condemnation of North Korea’s behaviour and, more importantly, seem to have had a real effect in reducing its proliferation activities.

But as South Korea, the US and others have said, pressure is a means to bring North Korea to the negotiating table. That is, they are a means to bring about real and sustainable engagement.

With engagement being the ultimate goal of pressure and the only real means to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis, the importance of the EU to Korean Peninsula affairs becomes obvious. To start with, Brussels can serve as an ideal facilitator of diplomatic engagement with the Kim Jong-un regime.

Almost all EU member states maintain diplomatic relations with North Korea, and several of them also have embassies in Pyongyang. Several EU member states have also hosted track-1.5 and track-2 dialogues including North Korea over the past few months. Until 2015, the EU also maintained an official dialogue with North Korea even as many other countries, and most notably the US, had given up on it. In other words, the EU has a network of diplomatic initiatives involving North Korea that few others can match.

In addition, the EU and several member states also continue to provide aid to North Korea. This is vital for such an impoverished country, and North Korea has officially and unofficially let the EU know that it is thankful for it.

Were sanctions to be relaxed and economic relations with North Korea to improve, European firms and expertise would be key in the development of sectors that Pyongyang is targeting, such as textiles and clothing or tourism.

And if KEDO or any similar energy assistance programme to North Korea is to be revived, the EU will be called upon to contribute. In short, the EU’s economic clout is and will be essential to any form of economic engagement with Pyongyang.

The EU should, therefore, reinforce the engagement component of its ‘critical engagement’ policy. With inter-Korean relations poised to improve thanks to President Moon’s own support for a thaw of relations with Pyongyang, engagement is set to dominate inter-Korean interactions for the foreseeable future.

Also, Brussels has already shown independence of action from the US in its continuing support for the Iranian nuclear deal even as the Donald Trump’s administration reneges from it. Similarly, the EU should pursue engagement with North Korea regardless of Washington’s position.

Thanks to its ‘pivot to Asia’, the EU has become more active in the continent’s affairs. This has been recognised by its invitation to attend last year’s East Asia Summit. Brussels should thus more fully get involved in the resolution of North Korea’s nuclear programme. It has the tools to do so.

And the engagement element of its policy is crucial as both Koreas initiate a new period of talks and exchanges that, ultimately, are the only way to deal with Pyongyang.