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Europe matters for North Korea engagement — no, really

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Preparations for the first inter-Korean summit in over a decade, and an unprecedented meeting between a sitting U.S. president and North Korea’s leader, indicate that the tide in the Korean Peninsula is turning towards engagement and the easing of tensions. President Donald Trump has shown his willingness to put all possible options to deal with Pyongyang on the table — including diplomacy. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is looking at developing a framework for cooperation with its northern neighbor.

And Kim Jong Un has signalled that he wants dialogue with both Washington and Seoul.

{mosads}As the United States and the international community consider giving engagement a try, it would be wise for the Trump administration to get Europe on board. Even though the European Union and other European countries might not be at the top of people’s minds when thinking about North Korea or East Asia at large, the truth is that Brussels has been taking the region more seriously over the past few years.


Aware of its security flashpoints and economic opportunities, the EU is implementing its own “pivot to Asia.” Crucially, this involves actively responding to developments in the region whenever possible.

In the case of North Korea, the EU has a policy of so-called “critical engagement.” This involves two components. The first is to put pressure on Pyongyang through sanctions, interdiction of nuclear and missile technology shipments, actively supporting United Nations  resolutions, and other measures. In fact, Brussels likes to boast that it has the most comprehensive sanctions regime on North Korea — going well beyond U.N. resolutions.

Crucially, though, the second component of the EU’s policy — engagement — is as important. Although the EU last held an official bilateral summit with North Korea in 2015, several European countries are hosting Track-2 dialogues involving North Korean officials, maintaining embassies in Pyongyang, and continuing to provide aid inside North Korea.

Europe can thus bring two important elements to the table if the upcoming summits prove successful and engagement with Pyongyang takes hold. To begin with, European countries can use their existing diplomatic links with the Kim regime to support American engagement efforts. Embassies in Pyongyang can provide a supplementary source of information about developments in the North Korean capital. European countries can continue to facilitate quasi-diplomatic links between regional powers and the United States by hosting dialogues in a neutral venue.

And the EU can add its voice to that of international partners seeking to convince Pyongyang of the need to move towards denuclearization. In fact, North Korean officials have stated that they see the EU as a neutral and credible voice because it lacks geopolitical interests in the Korean Peninsula.

Furthermore, Europe is well-positioned to support economic engagement with North Korea were the international community to decide that this is the way to go. In fact, there is discussion in Brussels about supporting inter-Korean economic cooperation projects if and when the Moon government launches them. Europe can also offer more aid than it currently does to support vulnerable North Koreans suffering from malnutrition and other problems. In addition, it can contribute to the building of any infrastructure or to energy transfers that North Korea might be offered in return for halting and reversing its nuclear programme. And if there is a push to support economic reform in North Korea, the EU can offer not only capital but also technical expertise.

The above does not imply that Europe should be taken for granted. Many in Brussels have bad memories of the way that Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) was dismantled without real consultation with the EU — despite it being one of the four executive board members. Also, many Europeans were disappointed at the way the EU was overlooked during the Six-Party Talks years. They felt that the EU should have been more closely and regularly consulted as the talks unfolded. The point is not that Europe should be at the forefront of the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue; Brussels understands this is not the case. But the EU feels that it should be consulted by allies so that it can offer its views.

It would thus be important for the Trump administration to reach out to Brussels as preparations for the potential Trump-Kim summit proceed. In Europe, Washington can find a trusted ally with cooperation in its DNA and existing links with the Kim Jong Un regime. If engagement is to be given a try, Europe will be more than happy to oblige.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo is KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel and associate professor in international relations at King’s College, London.

Tags Donald Trump European Union Foreign relations of North Korea International relations Kim dynasty Kim Jong-un Korea North Korea
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