Saturday

23rd Jan 2021

Opinion

North Korea: time to put the 'E' in engagement

  • North Korea: a crowd in 2007 pay mass tribute to Kim Jong-il, father of the dynastic regime's current leader (Photo: Flickr)

The EU has a policy of so-called 'critical engagement' towards North Korea.

In a nutshell, this implies that Brussels is willing to use both carrots and sticks when dealing with Pyongyang but – crucially – that cooperation is a central element of its policy toolkit.

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As the tide in Korean Peninsula affairs shifts towards diplomacy and talks, it is crucial for the EU to be bold and use engagement to both induce change from Pyongyang and enhance its role in the region.

It is fair to say that the EU has been more willing to implement the 'critical' component of its policy in recent years.

Indeed, Brussels often boasts that it applies the most comprehensive sanctions regime on Pyongyang, going beyond UN requirements.

In addition, EU-North Korea summits have been put on hold since 2015 and EU aid towards the Asian country is very small compared to similarly poor countries.

In other words, Brussels has gone out of its way to punish the Kim Jong-un regime as it developed its nuclear and long-range missile programmes.

A more forceful approach made sense as long as the governments of Barack Obama and Donald Trump applied pressure on North Korea. It was also logical at a time when two successive conservative governments in South Korea took a tough stance towards Pyongyang.

But the dramatic developments over the past few weeks culminating in preparations for the first inter-Korean summit in over a decade and, above all, a potential Trump-Kim meeting call for Brussels to move towards engagement.

Sooner, the better

And the sooner, the better. Otherwise the EU runs the risk of being side-lined by events.

To begin with, the EU should think about resuming its summit meetings with Pyongyang. This would not be difficult to do, for Brussels can simply reactivate its existing bilateral dialogue and several EU member states still maintain their embassies in Pyongyang.

A meeting with the Kim government should not be seen as any 'reward for bad behaviour'. Rather, it would serve as a venue for the EU to present its position and demands to North Korea.

It would also allow Brussels to hear Pyongyang's position directly from the Kim government, rather than mediated through a different interlocutor. At a time when South Korea and, potentially, the US are about to hold their own bilateral meetings with North Korea, there is no reason for the EU to refrain from doing so.

In addition, the EU should consider scaling up economic cooperation with North Korea.

Certainly, this should be done in cooperation with partners such as South Korea or international organisations. But the Moon Jae-in government in Seoul has already indicated that it is willing to resume old economic cooperation initiatives with its northern counterpart while also launching new ones.

Plus, the Kim Jong-un government's byungjin line has elevated economic development to the forefront of its goals.

As a fanciful as it might seem, Pyongyang believes that it can follow on the steps of China and Vietnam and become an attractive destination for foreign investors. Arguably, economic reform is the best means to create a peaceful environment in the Korean Peninsula in the long run – a key EU goal for the region.

There are strong signs that the Moon government would like the EU to change tack in its North Korea policy.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha will be attending the foreign affairs council on Monday (19 March) to present her government's policy.

Talk in Seoul is that the international community should give economic engagement with North Korea a try – including the EU.

And the South Korean government is making a special effort to keep the EU informed of the latest developments in inter-Korean relations – in contrast to the six-party talks years, when Brussels was excluded from key decisions on North Korea.

As one of its strategic partners, it would be wise for the EU to reciprocate and provide concrete support to South Korea as it tries to bring North Korea out of the cold. In return, Brussels can expect Seoul to continue to keep it very regularly informed of its North Korea policy.

From a purely EU-interest driven perspective, supporting engagement independently and swiftly will also serve to enhance Brussels' reputation in East Asia as it seeks to continue its pivot towards the region.

Brussels - follower or leader?

Often, Brussels is seen as a follower rather than a shaper of events in the region. While it is true that the EU should not expect to be seen as a driver of Korean Peninsula affairs, it can be seen as a strategic player with the flexibility to quickly adapt its policy its geostrategic changes.

Recent events are an excellent opportunity in this respect. With engagement poised to dominate inter-Korean relations in the coming months and years, the EU has an opportunity to support an ally, help to drive change, and be seen as a credible actor.

Dr Ramon Pacheco Pardo is Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Senior Lecturer at King's College London

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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