Map of Korean Peninsula. Image: iStock
Map of Korean Peninsula:Asia Times files / iStock

The European Union may be seeking a role in facilitating a diplomatic breakthrough in the North Korean nuclear crisis. The EU contributed to the finalization of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 and has gained extensive experience in coordinating contentious multilateral negotiations.

That said, even seasoned European diplomats would find it difficult to unlock the current standoff between North Korea and the United States and satisfy South Korea, China, Japan and Russia at the same time.

Critical engagement

During a visit to the EU External Action Service headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday, South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam praised the European bloc’s stance toward Pyongyang, underscoring that it resembled Seoul’s “two-track” strategy of exerting pressure while promoting dialogue with its reclusive northern neighbor.

The EU is a trade-oriented actor and has an interest in safeguarding global stability, which is threatened by North Korean nuclear and ballistic activities

The EU is a trade-oriented actor and has an interest in safeguarding global stability, which is threatened by North Korean nuclear and ballistic activities. The EU policy of “critical engagement” with the regime of Kim Jong-un combines diplomatic pressure and sanctions with dialogue. It aims to push North Korea into abandoning its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile-related programs by avoiding a military intervention.

On Monday, EU foreign ministers condemned North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests, not least the launch of an alleged intercontinental vector on July 4, and said the Union was considering imposing further restrictions on Pyongyang. The EU sanctions regime toward North Korea is already very robust, including both autonomous and United Nations-sponsored measures. In particular, it targets the trade of goods, services and technology that could bolster North Korean nuclear and ballistic ambitions

On the other hand, EU leaders insisted on the need to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula through peaceful means. EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini added that Brussels was ready to back the South Korean initiative to revive communications with the North Korean leadership and build confidence among the parties.

The EU is nudging Seoul to take a leading role in the process. It hopes the diplomatic attitude of new South Korean President Moon Jae-in can block US President Donald Trump’s possible rush toward military confrontation with North Korea. The European grouping is persuaded that armed adventures against Pyongyang will not solve the problem, while the common people of the region would pay a heavy price if war were to break out on Korean soil.

A reliable interlocutor

Last month, quoting EU officials, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Union was in talks with South Korea and China about playing a brokering role in possible negotiations with Pyongyang.

The European bloc should work to foster the resumption of the Six-Party Talks format on North Korea’s denuclearization, which saw the involvement of Pyongyang, the US, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia between 2005 and 2009.

The EU is not a regional power in East Asia and could be accepted by North Korea as a relatively reliable interlocutor. As well, Brussels has been committed to improving the humanitarian situation in the Northeast Asian nation since 1995. During this period, the EU has granted humanitarian assistance to the North Korean population through health, food security, water and sanitation programs.

The European help is all the more necessary now that North Korea has been hit by the worst drought since 2001. As reported by the UN Food Agriculture Organization on Thursday, Pyongyang needs foreign contributions to offset current food shortages.

North Korea is not Iran

The EU is coordinating the joint commission that monitors the implementation of the agreement with Iran. The European grouping served as a facilitator in the negotiations for its conclusion two years ago. The deal was signed by the P5+1 group of world powers – the US, China, Russia, Britain and France plus Germany – and Iran to curb potential military developments of Tehran’s nuclear program.

The EU’s impact on the negotiating process with Iran was positive but hardly decisive. The nuclear settlement with the Iranian government would have been almost out of reach without the active contribution of China.

North Korea is not Iran, however. Beijing has a direct stake in the North Korean crisis and its moves might not coincide in full with the EU’s mediating work in hypothetical new Six-Party Talks. Brussels wants a “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” while China could accept a North Korea armed with a limited nuclear deterrent.

In Myanmar, where the EU is working to put an end to decades of fighting between the national armed forces and ethnic militias operating in the country’s border areas with China, Brussels and Beijing have never managed to cooperate effectively, for example.

In any case, even if the European bloc were to find a common line of action with China on the North Korean issue, Brussels should be careful not to alienate the American ally. In this sense, it comes as no surprise that the EU has never officially supported Beijing’s proposal for North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile programs in return for the freeze of US-South Korea military drills.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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