Last week, a team of the European Union (EU) Humanitarian Aid department initiated a field visit to North Korea aimed at assessing the country’s food shortages. Furthermore, last month marked the 10th anniversary of the European Commission’s (the EU’s executive body) relations with North Korea. Coinciding with these two benchmarks, Javier Delgado Rivera interviews Mr Christian Ehler, a German Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and Chair of the European Parliament Delegation for relations with the Korean Peninsula.
How would you best describe today’s EU ties with the North Korea?
The European relations with North Korea could be better portrayed by its intermittent character. Although 25 EU member states maintain bilateral relations with Pyongyang, and the EU is represented by its ambassador in Seoul, diplomatic relations remain difficult.
The at times unsystematic engagement of Brussels with North Korea depends heavily on the developments of North Korea’s nuclear programme. On top of this, there are a number of regional security concerns that the EU has to watch carefully and react accordingly to.
Such hurdles have not put us off though. Over the years, a multi-tiered dialogue with the North Korean regime has been pursued and, even if characterized by up and downs, has been successfully held. It is worth noting that any kind of exchange with Pyongyang has to be carried out under peculiar terms. North Korea’s political system differs so much from ours that certain adjustments have to be necessarily made if we really aim at cutting short the country’s isolation.
The EU is not a member of the Six Party Talks (6PT), the main international initiative to persuade North Korea to denuclearize. Should Brussels not be part of these talks?
The European Parliament and the EU as a whole have repeatedly called for the resumption of the 6PT. Even if the EU is not a party (it was not been invited), it fully backs the process, both politically, and financially, with €1,8 million for verification purposes. Brussels stands ready to provide further assistance and support if progress is made in the 6PT.
The EU is doing all it can to make headway with North Korea, but it takes two, or in this case, several, to tango. In its efforts to tackle security issues destabilizing the region, the EU should work hand in hand with China. The European Parliament is well aware of Beijing’s weight on Pyongyang’s calculations. We keep a close eye on the Sino-North Korean relationship, having repeatedly called on China to come up with a purposeful strategy able to prevent tensions from escalating.
You mentioned the financial assistance provided by the EU in the framework of the 6PT. Is Brussels flexing its aid delivering muscle to further relate with the reclusive regime in NK?
To the European Parliament, the well-being of North Korean citizens is just as serious concern as the stability of the Korean Peninsula. In fact, both shape Europe’s involvement in the region. Since the mid-1990, Brussels has but maintained an undiminished commitment to the North Korean people by providing financial assistance and large provisions of food aid. Let me give you a figure. Over the last three years, the EU food security programme has earmarked €34 million for security and health projects in North Korea.
Yet our commitment is anything but limited to improving the living conditions of North Koreas. The EU strives to make sure that their fundamental rights are, beyond the rhetoric of the DPRK’s constitution, respected on the ground. Every time Pyongyang moves in the wrong direction, the European Parliamant does not hesitate to articulate its rejection. For instance, in July last year the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on North Korea to put an immediate end to the grave, widespread and systematic human rights violations perpetrated against its own people.
But Pyongyang has built a reputation of disregard to any external pressure. Critics might argue that, in essence, the EU’s role and engagement in North Korea is limited to aid.
That would be a short-sighted view. Brussels’ uninterrupted provision of food and humanitarian aid has proved crucial in moving ahead with the international community’s efforts to generate an environment of discussion and consultation on the Korean Peninsula. As former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana opined in 2007, the EU has grown into a player as opposed to a mere ‘payer’ in North Korea.
For the time being, our role should focus on keeping the channels of communication with North Korea open. In the short term, dialogue through aid will remain the Union’s primary tool to carry forward our leverage on Pyongyang and secure stability in the region. The much-sought regular exchange with North Korea can only be achieved by building upon existing diplomatic avenues.