Europe’s plight to punch its weight in North Korea

June 9th, 2011
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by Javier Delgado Rivera

May marked the 10th anniversary of official relations between the European Union (EU) and North Korea. Initially seeming a promising relationship, it soon revealed its wobbly foundations when, after just one year, Pyongyang’s violation of its commitments to the International Atomic Energy Agency brought dialogue to a sudden end. Today, North Korea’s nuclear manoeuvres remain an issue of consternation in the EU, holding the key to unlock Brussels ties with Pyongyang.

Europe’s dissatisfaction with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) boiled over in late 2006. As the country first tested its nuclear capabilities, the European Council, the EU’s main decision-making body, mirrored the punitive style of the ensuing UN resolution. Since then, every move made by Brussels on the DPRK has translated into regulating, extending, and amending its restrictive measures. As a result, an intricate account of trade bans and freezing of assets fleshes the EU soft-power muscles, albeit to little or no avail.

When in early 2007 North Korea’s Kim Jong Il pledged to get rid of his nuclear reactor in exchange for energy and financial aid, Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief of the time, hastened to say that on request, “the EU would, from now on, would be a ‘playeras opposed to only payerin a post-nuclear North Korea. It did not take long to prove his aspirations wrong. The EU was not invited to take part in the Six Party Talks, cutting Brussels off from international efforts to bring stability to the Korean Peninsula.

Many in Brussels strongly believe that their position as a fair, reasonable global actor, with no military interests in the region, could play a constructive role in restarting the Six Party Talks. North Korea sees the Six Party Talks as a conspiracy of its neighbours against its sovereignty. “The involvement of a big new broker, not seen as one of these neighbours, could bring progress to a new level,” said Solomon Passy, a former Bulgarian foreign minister and Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Bulgarian Parliament.

Luring a Stalinist regime with international trade

Some voices in Brussels have suggested using economic influence, the EU being the world’s largest trade bloc, to engage the reclusive regime. In fact, the first half of last year saw more than a 100 per cent increase in North Korean exports to the EU. Although this surge is still rather limited to a large increase in exported petroleum products to the Netherlands, this could nonetheless resemble a serious entry point with the DPRK. “An open North Korea would be more cautious about provoking its trading partners,” say Susan Shirk and John Delury, two prominent American academics on North Korea.

Yet there are two vital considerations to be made. First, the bulk of North Korean trade is conducted with booming China, a factor that will potentially mitigate any EU growth in influence – even if EU trade continues growing.  Second, Pyongyang’s practice of patronage and cronyism in all spheres suggests that ordinary North Koreans would benefit little to nothing from any growth on trade.   With these points in mind, it is hard to see quite how European influence over Pyongyang might articulate, even with increased trade.

Aid and human rights

The EU had provided aid and humanitarian assistance to North Korea long before it established diplomatic ties with the country. Brussels’ supply of aid has not been affected by North Korean belligerency or nuclear tests.  “The EU is looking carefully at any signs of deterioration of the food situation in North Korea that would justify a strong humanitarian action,” Raphaël Brigand said in an interview with this author, acting spokesperson for the EU Humanitarian Aid department.

The 2001 opening of diplomatic relations between the European Commission and the DPRK paved the way to a remarkable breakthrough: the first human rights dialogue between the EU and North Korea. However, this refreshing development turned out to be short-lived. Glyn Ford, a former member of the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with the Korean Peninsula, noted in his book North Korea on the Brink, how during the talks, DPRK officials acknowledged that “they had their own standards [on human rights] and that their priority concerns were the right to subsistence, right to development, and equality.”

In a similar fashion to China, Pyongyang regards discussions on the topic of human rights as a direct threat to its sovereignty. For a country to reportedly have 200,000 of its citizens locked in WWII-like labour camps, human rights are set to become a major elephant in the room whenever the EU-DPRK diplomatic talks resume.

Besides its provision of assistance to North Korea, the EU keeps a degree of contact with the country through European Parliament-DPRK parliamentary exchanges. Even if inconclusive in terms of tangible­ outcomes, such regular meetings prevent the Brussels-Pyongyang political ties from disappearing, and equip European lawmakers and officials with a much-sought understanding of Pyongyang’s thinking.

How North Korea could make Europe stronger

The long-standing dream of most Eurocrats is to endow the EU with a firmer footing in the global arena. The nature of Europe, with its many voices, makes it difficult for Brussels to address international affairs with one concerted voice. North Korea could easily be the least controversial issue the EU’s foreign policy has faced in decades. If Brussels manages to play its part in the Korean Peninsula, the EU would emerge strengthened on the global stage.

But before getting there, some build-up should be hammered out by European diplomats. A task requiring U.S.-like experience in the region. Yet “the EU External Action Service lacks experienced staff who know Korean history, language and culture,” suggests Anna Rosbach, a Danish Member of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with the Korean Peninsula.

These are times of rethinking for the world’s autocratic regimes. The Arab spring and in particular and the outcome of events in Libya will likely reinforce the hardline position of Pyongyang. According to one DPRK diplomat speaking off the record in Brussels, “we have learnt a lesson in Libya. Gaddafi gave in to the pressure and abandoned his nuclear programme. Today, lacking of a nuclear deterrence, the country has imploded because of the international community meddling.”

As Brussels is about to do its bit to feed hungry North Koreans, it is paying great attention to the possible succession of power to Kim Jong Un. Depending on the way both play out, a certain rapprochement could be on the cards, although it might just be wishful thinking. The EU is part of the international community’s failure to deal with the North Korean regime, and so, it is as clueless as anyone else on what to expect.

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll founded NK News in 2010. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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