Is there a role for Europe in the Korean crisis?

Until this past week I had never even heard of the Centre for European Reform. On Friday 12 April 2013, my emailed alerts to the North Korea Forum on LinkedIn brought my attention to Ian Bond’s excellent article Out of range, out of mind: Is there a role for Europe in the Korean crisis?

European union conceptAs you might have read in the left-hand column, CanKor has always been interested in the “role to be played in northeast Asia by second-tier middle powers like Canada, Australia and the European Union.” I have often puzzled over the fact that after the initial “Sunshine” enthusiasm shown by European countries for a role in North Korea in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Europe by and large seems to have ceded its politically astute and innovative role to the geopolitical interests of the USA.

My own European roots have rebelled against the notion that when it comes to North-East Asia, Europe should act as cheerleaders of a  doomed-from-the-start American policy initiated by an American President politically traumatized by the events of 9-11. Who would have thought that Barack Obama would continue his predecessor’s ill-conceived notion that somehow playing the DPRK’s game of brinkmanship would bring them to their knees? I too wish that doing nothing except wagging a finger would have prevented North Korea from building up to 10 nuclear warheads and a missile capable of launching a (non-functioning) satellite into orbit.

Our best efforts over the past seven years have not been able to stir the Canadian Government into any useful direction. Even playing the “good cop” role, as Andrei Lankov recently suggested in Ottawa, seems beyond our government’s ability or intent. The same apparently goes for Australia and New Zealand.

Still, I held out some hope for Europe. After all, European NGOs are still a salutary force on the ground in North Korea. European foundations have done excellent work in capacity training and helping humanitarian and human rights organizations develop innovative approaches. But I have despaired waiting on European governments to evolve innovative or creative approaches to the issue of peace in this volatile region. Call me strategically impatient!

Enter Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform. Bond works for an organization that calls itself “a think-tank devoted to making the European Union work better and strengthening its role in the world.” As I understand it, the CER should not be mistaken as officially linked to or sponsored by the EU, as its website banner might suggest. Its creativity derives from its independence in that respect.

Ian Bond CERIan Bond is a former senior diplomat and British Ambassador to Latvia, an experienced negotiator, policy analyst and strategic thinker. Specialist in the former Soviet Union, including the South Caucasus and Caspian energy issues, he also works on Asian affairs and Europe’s relationships with rising powers. He has a deep knowledge of US foreign policy and its drivers.

Bond (no relation to James) says that Europe has “interests and assets” in the region. “It should think about how to protect the former and use the latter.” This does not mean running interference with the Americans or weakening the UNSC sanctions. “Any move to soften sanctions on North Korea without significant movement from Pyongyang, would be very unhelpful.”

“The EU has already imposed wide-ranging sanctions on North Korea following its December 2012 ballistic missile launch and its February 2013 nuclear test. It should tell Pyongyang clearly that while it would rather reward genuine efforts to reduce tension, it will not hesitate (for example) to restrict the country’s access to foreign currency in response to further provocative acts.” 

But there are other things Europe can do on the positive side:

“Europeans should also intensify contacts with China and Russia – which cannot be suspected by North Korea of speaking on behalf of the US – and urge them to keep up their recent efforts to discourage North Korea’s aggressive posturing.”

He suggests that when things calm down, Europeans should take the initiative in four areas:

“First, the EU should reinstate its formal political dialogue with the DPRK, postponed last November as tension around North Korea’s weapons programmes grew.”

“Second, the EU should support ‘track-two’ dialogues.”

“Third, the EU could strengthen people-to-people and cultural co-operation.” 

“Finally, Europeans should support economic and business training. In the long run, nothing in North Korea can improve much without a radical change of economic course.”

As far as I can see, engagement is the name of the game. Whenever there has been positive development on the Korean Peninsula, engagement is what got us there. As Bond concludes, “Even if their clout is relatively limited, Europeans should think creatively about how to nudge developments in the right direction.”

I encourage CanKor readers to check out Ian Bond’s article here. And if you wish, you can join the discussion at the North Korea Forum. One CanKor Brain Trust member already did. In response to a French participant’s question, Prof. Victor Hsu wrote the following:

I can think of three eminently sensible reasons for a critical EU role:

1. The EU and its NGOs have been engaged with the DPRK since the beginning of the crisis now, incredibly, almost two decades ago. They have demonstrated humanitarian faithfulness, a point I am sure not easily “forgotten” by the DPRK.

2. The CSCE Helsinki Process is being cited as a relevant model to be contextualized for North East Asia by no less a significant figure than President Park Geun Hye.

3. The 6-party framework is in an impasse because of the narrow focus on the nuclear issue. It is high time for, as the Hyundai car commercial advertises, “new thinking and new possibilities.” All stakeholders including the EU and the Political Affairs section of the UN should help create a new forum that will address a comprehensive solution. The forum agenda should include the Armistice issue.

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