Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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.

EU in diplomatic push to save Iran deal

EU leaders mobilise to stop Trump's attack on Iran deal, as Congress prepares knife-edge vote with implications for trans-Atantic ties and Middle East stability.

Europe could lose out in North Korean bonanza

South Korean businesses including Hyundai and Samsung are already scoping investment opportunities. Will North Korea become a 'new Vietnam' opportunity - or more like Myanmar, where slow Brussels policy-making meant EU exporters lost out.

Joined-up EU defence procurement on the horizon?

Disputes between member states, notably Germany, highlight the lack of coordination among national industrial capabilities for a European Defence Industrial Strategy — which may include the EU's first ever defence commissioner.

For Ukraine's sake, pass the EU due diligence directive

The EU Commission's 2022 CSDDD proposal did not include provisions incorporating "conflict due diligence", they were added, after the Russian invasion, by the European Parliament and Council into the final directive text — for Ukraine's sake, vote for it.

Latest News

  1. Joined-up EU defence procurement on the horizon?
  2. Macron on Western boots in Ukraine: What he really meant
  3. Amazon lobbyists banned from EU Parliament
  4. MEPs adopt new transparency rules for political ads
  5. EU nature restoration law approved after massive backlash
  6. Memo from Munich — EU needs to reinvent democracy support
  7. For Ukraine's sake, pass the EU due diligence directive
  8. All of Orbán's MPs back Sweden's Nato entry

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us