With South Korean President Moon Jae-in set to arrive in Europe for nine-day visit this weekend, it’s worth considering what those in the EU think about the current rapprochement process on the Korean peninsula.
The EU has a clear policy towards North Korea: “critical engagement.” The policy mixes carrots in the form of talks or aid with sticks, especially sanctions. Over the past three years, however, the EU has decidedly turned towards sticks as Pyongyang has made rapid progress on its nuclear and long-range missile programs.
But as inter-Korean relations improve and U.S.-North Korea diplomacy continues, there is an internal debate across Europe regarding the best course of action towards Pyongyang.
To understand this debate, it is first necessary to know the EU’s key goals in relation to North Korea’s security conundrum.
First and foremost, Brussels wants the full denuclearization of North Korea and, crucially, to stop Pyongyang’s proliferation activities.
Europe might not be directly threatened by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but Pyongyang is seen as a clear threat to international law, especially the non-proliferation regime.
There is an internal debate across Europe regarding the best course of action towards Pyongyang
It is also seen as a possible example to would-be nuclear powers, including Iran, and its proliferation of nuclear technology and WMD to the Middle East increases the risk of even more instability in the region.
There is also the nightmare scenario of terrorist groups such as ISIS getting hold of North Korean materials exported to the Middle East to create a dirty bomb to be used in a European city.
The other key goal that the EU wants to achieve is to change North Korea’s behavior to create a more stable peninsula.
Brussels’ support for stability is not mere posturing: South Korea is one of only ten strategic partners that the EU has across the world. It shares what Europe considers to be the universal values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
And it is the only country in the world with framework, free trade, and crisis management participation agreements with the EU covering political, economic and security relations in operation.
Therefore, when High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini states that the EU supports South Korea’s engagement efforts, she is channeling the views of member states. Foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha, in particular, is highly regarded in Europe and has been a very effective communicator of Seoul’s position.
At the same time, however, the EU still maintains that denuclearization is the best way to create a stable Korean peninsula. The thinking is that the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear threat will increase South Korea’s security.
Developments over the past few months in the Korean peninsula, however, have led to a seeming contradiction in the position of the EU.
Brussels is adamant that sanctions are still crucial to bring about the denuclearization of North Korea. However, this runs counter to President Moon Jae-in’s policy of using the carrots of economic cooperation, military confidence building and cultural and sports exchanges to ease tensions in the Korean Peninsula.
So far, the official position of the EU is that sanctions will remain in place until North Korea denuclearizes. This includes both UN sanctions and, importantly, the EU’s own autonomous sanctions.
These go significantly beyond multilateral sanctions and restrict almost all forms of direct engagement with North Korea except for aid and some forms of travel into the country.
Furthermore, the EU has been putting pressure on countries across the world to implement the sanctions regime on North Korea and several member states are actively involved in the monitoring and potential seizure of North Korea’s illegal shipments. The “big three” of France, Germany and the UK, in particular, support this stance.
Other member states and even diplomats and foreign policy officials in the “big three,” however, would like a reversal of this policy.
They would like Brussels to use diplomatic engagement and economic carrots, and not only sanctions to better attune the policy of the EU to South Korea’s.
There is great sympathy for the reconciliation process that Seoul is trying to pursue
They would like to see the gradual removal of UN or, at the very least, EU sanctions as North Korea takes steps towards denuclearization. They would also like Brussels to resume its bilateral dialogue with Pyongyang, last held in 2015.
Furthermore, these member states would like the EU to become a more open dialogue facilitator between the US and North Korean than it currently is. It is no secret that member states such as Sweden, especially, Finland or Poland were keen to host the June summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Two main reasons explain this internal debate in Europe.
To begin with, there is great sympathy for the reconciliation process that Seoul is trying to pursue. It should be remembered that the EU has its origins as an economic community.
This created the conditions for post-World War II reconciliation in Western Europe. More recently, the accession of Central and Eastern European states into the EU was seen as the ending point of the East-West divide in Europe.
The beginning of the end of this divide can be traced back to people-to-people exchanges during the Cold War and the economic support that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development set up in 1991, among others, provided to Central and Eastern European states.
Sympathy extends to Kim’s push for economic reform, at least among some of these same Central and Eastern European states that used to live under communism. Political and business leaders in these countries also had to undergo economic reform as they abandoned centralized economic planning and accepted the market economy.
They understand that this is not an easy transition to make. And they also know that external support, first from the EBRD and now from the EU, can go a long way in helping with the transition.
In addition, the “Trump factor” and the problems that the mercurial U.S. president has created for Europe have also affected the way policy-makers and diplomats across the continent see the North Korean issue.
The EU, France, Germany, and the UK spent years crafting a nuclear deal with Iran. Across Europe, this agreement is regarded as a big diplomatic success for the EU. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal has created real anger across Europe.
Displeasure or outright rejection of Trump’s foreign policy has been further compounded by the trade war between the U.S. and the EU and Trump’s threats to withdraw from NATO and the WTO. Sympathy towards Washington is in short supply.
This has created the conditions for many within the EU to ask what is the point of supporting the policy of the U.S. towards North Korea – in particular, the sanctions regime on Pyongyang.
Throughout 2017, the EU spent political capital and economic and human resources to support Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign.
Willingness for a new round of pressure if things go wrong is eroding. The EU would rather focus on Russia’s threat, instability in North Africa or dealing with China than supporting a U.S. President who reportedly would like the EU to break up.
This intra-European debate is reaching a climax as Brussels prepares to host its ninth summit with Seoul in mid-October – the first since Moon took power.
Willingness for a new round of pressure if things go wrong is eroding
While the EU is very unlikely to shift its stance towards sanctions before then, this could change in the coming months. Verifiable steps towards denuclearization would make it very difficult for the EU not to start to shift towards the engagement component of its policy.
Further progress in inter-Korean relations, a second Trump-Kim summit, the sight of Kim visiting Seoul, and a peace declaration would also help to shift the debate against from sanctions.
Such a move by what remains the second biggest economy in the world and a diplomatic juggernaut would help to give further impetus to inter-Korean relations.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. Mission to the European Union
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