Five months studying at the Kim Il Sung University are unique, illuminating, and often kafkaesque. They were also, to my surprise, extremely dull.
So, during this author’s sojourn, the evening news was always a welcome relief. Like good DPRK-student rebels, my roommate and I would turn on, tune in, and watch carefully.
In September 2014, the evening news included a feature on the ongoing Crimean conflict. The presenter explained how peaceful Russian engagement was being subverted by unjustified and belligerent American imperialism.
The EU’s desires for peaceful negotiation were, the presenter described, being trampled underfoot by Washington’s warmongering. You know what the worst thing about this was, asked my roommate with a sigh? That the poor EU was yet again being dragged into a conflict by their dastardly, so-called allies.
“Why doesn’t the EU have its own position”?
Last week’s nine-day visit to Europe by South Korean President Moon Jae-in lends that question a pressing urgency.
Upon taking office last year, the ROK President dispatched envoys across Europe and Asia to seek aid in solving the Korean security crisis. He heard little back.
But, if the Mountain will not come to Moon, Moon must go to the Mountain, and, one year later, the persistent President has come knocking.
Although a second Trump-Kim summit is planned for after the U.S. midterms next month, U.S.-DPRK diplomacy is going nowhere fast.
Diplomacy is all about give-and-take: Washington wants more take before it does anything, while Pyongyang argues the time has come to give.
The crucial issue is sanctions. At this point, both the North Korean regime and its people expect a lifting of sanctions. They feel they’ve conceded enough, especially when the third inter-Korean summit insisted Northern denuclearization required American action. For them, it’s Washington’s move.
It’s in this environment that Moon flew to Europe seeking support for his program of inter-Korean engagement. He wanted the EU to resume their bilateral dialogue with Pyongyang – and hoped for its backing.
Ultimately, he wanted the EU to re-align their North Korea position closer to Seoul’s. Moon wasn’t asking the EU to fly in the face of Washington and publicly declare sanctions should be dropped, but he wanted them to tone it down.
The result? Five countries, four nos, and a very tentative yes.
Moon’s visit took him to Paris, Rome, the Vatican, Brussels, and Copenhagen. Only the Vatican said yes, suggesting an official invitation from Pyongyang would lead to a Papal visit.
For though the Pope answers only to God, Brussels fears a higher power. God can’t start a trade war, but Trump can.
NO JOINT STATEMENT
The first warning bells went off after the extraordinary absence of any joint statement post-EU-ROK summit.
The reason, it seems, was Moon’s refusal and the EU’s insistence on including the phrase “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID)” or synonymous wording in the statement.
Brussels also wanted Moon’s support on the Iranian nuclear deal, where he preferred to remain silent.
PARIS: THE BEGINNING AND THE END
Moon’s first stop was France. He’d already been warned by European diplomats that Paris was the key to unlocking EU support. To get anywhere, he had to appeal to France, and especially to its imperious leader President Emmanuel Macron.
Aware of the importance of the moment, appeal he did. Astute observers have predicted Macron may have moved from CVID to sequencing.
This author fears they’re being overly optimistic. In a press conference immediately after their talks at the Élysée Palace, Macron said: “France highly appreciates South Korea’s effort to make headway in getting North Korea to publicly and unequivocally embrace the CVID concept.”
But forget what was said; in fact, forget Macron and forget the Presidency. There’s truth to the joke that politicians only think they run government – for the real power, look to the civil service.
The French civil service have been historical hardliners on North Korea. Paris is only one of two EU members to not recognize Pyongyang. After Francois Mitterand’s bizarre 1981 visit to the DPRK, the North Koreans were hopeful official recognition was at hand.
It was the civil service which, when he became President, talked Mitterand out of it, arguing it would infuriate Seoul. Neither former-French Presidents Sarkozy (2007-2012) or Hollande (2012-2017), officially endorsed the rigid position of their government – Macron now has.
So why are the French so anti-engagement? It’s been suggested the answer is not complex: as one of only five permanent members of the UN’s Security Council, Paris has a superiority complex. After Brexit, France will be the only EU member with a seat on the Security Council, and, though ostensibly the leader of the EU, Macron prefers North Korea to be dealt with by the “big boys” in New York.
The French civil service have been historical hardliners on North Korea
Paris does not want the full EU soon-to-be 27 in a mediatory role as Seoul does, since (especially absent a Pyongyang embassy) any French role would be relatively minor.
WITH US OR AGAINST US
Paris is supported in its position by Germany and the UK, constituting the Big Three of EU diplomacy. The Netherlands has also sided with the anti-engagement triumvirate. The UK’s position through the EU will disappear on March 29, so Moon was conservative in its hopes anyway. Dutch influence will also be minimal.
But German apathy may have come as a blow to Moon. Chancellor Angela Merkel has traditionally supported engagement with North Korea. Most likely though this remains unchanged, but bad election results and other global priorities might make her cautious about sticking her neck out. Siding with France is decidedly simpler.
On the other side are Sweden, Finland and several central and eastern European states. These states have long sought engagement with North Korea, many have embassies in Pyongyang, and would happily align EU policy closer to Seoul’s.
Like Seoul, they believe less in sticks and more in carrots. Sweden, in particular, has long remained neutral vis-a-vis North Korea in a way which gives them a not-inconsiderable influence in Pyongyang. Just like Germany though, Sweden and its allies are not willing to go out on a limb for this. They will not challenge the Big Three.
Internal division, there may be. But serious opposition there is not.
A SPECTRE HAUNTING EUROPE?
Looming over this debate, not to mention Moon’s visit, was the fear in Brussels of U.S. President Donald Trump.
He tried to sink the Iran Nuclear Deal, he pulled the U.S. out of the Paris accords, he wants the EU to break up and a few months ago European Council President Donald Tusk had to do some hasty diplomacy to narrowly avoid the escalation of minor disputes on the EU-U.S. deficit into an all-out trade war.
Every analyst agrees that there is real anger in Brussels, especially over Iran. But if he’s hated, he’s also feared and the prospect of creating another rift with Washington makes even the most fervent of his European opposition think twice.
The Big Three, Sweden, the Eastern European members, even President Tusk – no one wants to cross Trump if they don’t have to.
Looming over this debate… was the fear in Brussels of U.S. President Donald Trump
And this is the crux of the problem: the EU doesn’t have to. It has no real vested interest in North Korea. Sure, it wants a stable Korean peninsula to continue its blossoming strategic partnership with South Korea. Yes, it supports Pyongyang’s denuclearization in the interests of global security.
Of course, it would love to facilitate its “pivot to Asia” and its recently-announced “connectivity” strategy by standing by Seoul. But all this baulks in comparison with its desire not to open another hostile front with Washington. Iran, Climate Change, Trade, Global Isolationism – the EU feel they’ve just got too many other priorities.
At the individual level, Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, is sympathetic to engagement. She tried to reach out at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila in August 2018, when she shook hands with DPRK foreign minister Ri Yong Ho.
At the ASEAN forum, the U.S., ROK, Japan, China and EU all wanted bilateral summits with Ri Yong Ho; only China and the EU got them. But her term ends in October next year. She’s already said she won’t seek re-appointment and, having coaxed, talked and finally dragged the Iranian Deal across the finish line only to have Trump pull out, she has other priorities than Pyongyang.
As for holding the second Trump-Kim summit in Europe, sources hint that Pyongyang has already rejected Geneva and Vienna outright.
Kim Jong Un does not want to travel far for the summit, hence it will probably take place in Asia.
Last but not least, the EU itself is rather haughty. In their eyes, Pyongyang wants them but not enough. The North may have repeatedly offered to resume their bilateral human rights dialogue (suspended by the EU), but, like the French, they don’t want the EU at the big boys table.
The EU shot itself in the foot when then-High Commissioner of External Relations Chris Patten refused to join 6-Party Talks. President Moon welcomes Brussels exporting its role in Iran and acting as mediator in Korea, but even if it was interested, the North Koreans aren’t.
Pyongyang has made it abundantly clear it wants bilateral talks with Seoul on peace and cooperation and bilateral talks with Washington on denuclearization. Russia, China, and now the EU are useful to Pyongyang for lower-level talks and pressuring Washington into easing UN sanctions.
But that is not a role Brussels is willing to play.
Moon’s visit may have been coated in the cheerful sheen of successful diplomacy, but he likely returns to Seoul disappointed.
“Ettu, Brussels?” he may think.
And so, for now at least, North Korean news presenters and roommates will keep on sighing.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Blue House
Five months studying at the Kim Il Sung University are unique, illuminating, and often kafkaesque. They were also, to my surprise, extremely dull.So, during this author’s sojourn, the evening news was always a welcome relief. Like good DPRK-student rebels, my roommate and I would turn on, tune in, and watch carefully.In September 2014, the evening news included a feature on the ongoing
Alessandro Ford is an NK News contributor based in the UK. He was the first British student to study at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang and has been interviewed by the Guardian, BBC, Asahi Shimbun, and DW, among others. He still visits North Korea regularly.