Time for the EU to give Korean peace a chance

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

South Korean President Moon Jae-In (R) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (L) shake hands at the military demarcation line (MDL), at the Joint Security Area (JSA) on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, 27 April 2018. [EPA/ Korea Summit Press Pool]

A formal end to the Korean War bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula is now firmly on the cards, and the EU should be brave and decisively support this peace process. Otherwise, Brussels risks being on the wrong side of history, warns Dr Ramon Pacheco Pardo.

Dr Ramon Pacheco Pardo is KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Senior Lecturer in International Relations at King’s College London

A successful inter-Korean summit is now over. The planned meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un should take place in the coming weeks. Japan and North Korea are also discussing their own summit.

Let’s start with today’s summit. Not only was the inter-Korean summit the first in over a decade; it was also carefully designed to pave the way for engagement leading to eventual peace.

In recent weeks, South Korean President Moon Jae-in touched all the right notes. He has stated that North Korea’s denuclearization is central to Korean Peninsula affairs.

President Moon has also indicated that inter-Korean rapprochement can only proceed in parallel with an improvement in US-North Korea and Japan-North Korea relations, while sanctions on Pyongyang will remain in place until substantial progress towards North Korean denuclearization has happened.

But we should make no mistake. South Korea’s strategy has engagement upfront. Seoul sees peace and improved inter-Korean relations as the end result of the rapprochement process in place since January. North Korea appears to be onboard.

The joint statement published today formally commits Pyongyang to a peace process. We can expect Seoul to continue to pursue engagement in the coming months and years to make this happen. And the EU can – and should – play a pivotal role in support of its strategic partners.

To begin with, Brussels should act as a guarantor of the agreements involving Pyongyang that are due to follow in the coming weeks and months. The main advantage of the consensus-based model that the EU follows when on key foreign policy decisions is that it underscores the commitment of member states.

Take the Iranian nuclear deal. When the EU and key member states signed up to it, they meant it. Thus, the Trump’s administration decision to first withdraw from, and now – it seems – renegotiate the agreement, has met with strong resistance across Europe. The EU is committed to the deal, and is willing to confront even the US in its defence. The same would be the case were the EU to decide to support any agreement signed by Pyongyang.

Third parties generally acknowledge this commitment as one of the EU’s strengths. Pyongyang is no exception. In private and through multiple channels, North Korea has indicated its trust that the EU will keep any commitment it might make. The same cannot be said of the Trump administration. The EU’s commitment will be crucial as the process of bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula will invariably go through ups and downs.

The EU can also act as a facilitator of dialogue with North Korea. More official summits and meetings with Pyongyang will be needed in the coming months and years. Several member states have embassies in Pyongyang, and the likes of Sweden and Finland have hosted meetings involving North Korea, including in recent weeks.

The European Parliament has been holding a semi-secretive dialogue with Pyongyang over the past few years.  The EU has the credibility to act as an impartial host and voice in any engagement process involving the Kim Jong-un regime. Pyongyang certainly thinks so.

Also crucial will be Brussels’ role in supporting economic reform in North Korea. If Pyongyang is to move towards denuclearization and the inter-Korean peace process is to be successful, the Kim regime will ask for help in reforming its economy in return.

Unnoticed to many, Pyongyang has been implementing economic reforms since 2002, a process which has accelerated since Kim took power in 2011. The inter-Korean summit agreement indicates that South Korea will support economic change in its northern neighbour. The EU should too.

Brussels should start by removing sanctions if and as other countries and the UN does. It should also beef up aid to the most vulnerable North Koreans, provide technical expertise and, more generally, promote trade and investment with North Korea.

These measures have helped countries such as China and Vietnam to dramatically reduce poverty. Their citizens enjoy more freedoms than they did before the two countries initiated their respective reform processes. Neither now pose a serious threat to the stability of the rest of the world, as some think North Korea does. The hope in South Korea is that the Kim regime wants to go down the same route.

Supporting the inter-Korean peace process is not only the right thing to do. It will also make the EU a serious player in East Asian affairs. If the process fails, Brussels can at least always say that it tried. The time for the EU to support peace in the Korean Peninsula is now.

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