South Korea’s Minister of Defense Jeong Kyeong-do. Japan’s Minister of Defense Takeshi Iwaya. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini.
The Shangri-La Dialogue session on Korean security had who some might consider an unexpected third speaker. But Mogherini’s presence at a panel on this topic should not come as a surprise, since this is an issue that has gained prominence in Brussels in recent years. It is also an issue on which the EU has a clear policy.
The EU’s policy towards North Korea has long been dubbed “critical engagement.” As Mogherini explained, this means using both carrots, in the form of economic and other inducements, and sticks – above all, sanctions.
However, critics argue that in recent years too much focus has been put on the “critical” component of the policy, and too little has been put on engagement — especially since Brussels suspended political dialogue with Pyongyang in 2015.
Mogherini’s speech and answers during the Q&A session at the Shangri-La Dialogue, however, focused on engagement.
This is unsurprising. As Mogherini explained, the EU sees sanctions as a means to an end – not as an end in and of themselves. The end is to steer North Korea towards diplomacy. From a European perspective, this was the case even in 2017, when the U.S. was seriously considering a military strike on North Korea.
The EU’s High Representative highlighted multilateralism and the role of the international community during her intervention.
This is a core element of the EU’s approach to security on the Korean peninsula: the EU understands that the inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea processes are the key drivers of Korean peninsula dynamics.
But Brussels also considers that peace through the successful implementation of any agreement is more likely if there is a multilateral process supporting the bilateral talks.
Why this belief in multilateralism? Cynics will argue that this is a means for the EU to get a seat at the table. But there is more to it. As Mogherini said, the more players there are sitting at the table, the more players have an incentive to make an agreement work.
The Iranian nuclear deal is an example of this. The JCPOA would be dead without a multilateral process involving, among others, the EU, France, Germany and the UK. Even though the U.S. has withdrawn from the agreement, but the other parties have an incentive to try to keep it alive.
Past agreements with North Korea have seen violations by both Pyongyang (especially) and Washington. The EU’s thinking is that a multilateral process could help a future agreement survive if agreements break down again in the future.
What can the EU bring to the table if the U.S. and North Korea reach a denuclearization agreement? As Mogherini said, Brussels can offer expertise in denuclearization and financial support as leverage.
This expertise refers to France and the UK’s experience in dismantling their own nuclear warheads. It also refers to the work of European experts in the implementation of denuclearization and nuclear safety agreements.
Dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, transportation and decommissioning of nuclear materials would in all likelihood be led by the U.S. But European experts can make a contribution, especially since the EU is seen as a more neutral actor by North Korea in issues relating to the Korean peninsula.
British experts, for example, worked together with U.S. experts on the implementation of Libya’s denuclearization agreement.
The EU sees sanctions as a means to an end – not as an end in and of themselves
Concerning financial support, the EU could increase aid, loans, and remove restrictions to trade and investment in North Korea. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development launched in 1991, for example, operates well beyond Europe – including in Central Asia.
There have been some initial discussions about the possibility of the bank contributing to development projects in North Korea if sanctions are removed.
Furthermore, the EU established the Asian Investment Fund in 2010, which actually has North Korea among its eligible partner countries. It is likely that it would support projects in North Korea if and once the international community comes up with a development plan for the country.
Regarding trade and investment, the key question is when would the EU be willing to start removing sanctions on Pyongyang? The EU has one of the toughest sanctions regimes against North Korea, prohibiting almost all types of economic activity.
At Shangri-La, Mogherini stated that sanctions are to be lifted when an agreement with North Korea is reached and implemented. There is a calculated ambiguity in this statement, but also a recognition that sanctions relief would need to come before full denuclearization takes place.
Throughout 2017 and early 2018, Brussels’ official line was that sanctions relief would only come at the end of a process resulting in North Korea’s full denuclearization.
This is no longer the case. Now, the EU sees a step-by-step process involving gradual sanctions removal as the most realistic scenario for any agreement with North Korea.
In this respect, the EU supports the approach defended by the South Korean government.
In the end, the EU would most likely align sanctions removal with the UN — and, therefore, with the U.S. During the Q&A session of the Korean security session, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun said that North Korea is perhaps the issue of national security on which the U.S. and the EU are most closely aligned. Indeed, Mogherini agreed with Biegun’s assessment.
This is more than diplomatic rhetoric. The EU has important differences with the Trump administration, from how to deal with Iran to an unresolved trade war with China. No such problems exist with regards to North Korea policy.
The EU believes that the only solution to the Korean peninsula conundrum is peaceful and diplomatic, and not militaristic
Finally, a note on the point with which Mogherini actually started her remarks at Shangri-La. Brussels stands ready to support a new regional security architecture for East Asia – with the EU itself as an example.
Indeed, the EU supports President Moon Jae-in’s NAPCR, just as it supported President Park Geun-hye’s NAPCI. In other words, the EU supports initiatives designed to build trust and cooperation on security and related matters in and around the Korean peninsula.
In short, the point that Mogherini stressed at Shangri-La was this: that ultimately, the EU believes that the only solution to the Korean peninsula conundrum is peaceful and diplomatic, and not militaristic. These are the ways in which the EU may be able to contribute to peace.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: EEAS
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