Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is no Kim Jong-un. Photo: TIMA via Reuters
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is no Kim Jong-un. Photo: TIMA via Reuters

China and Russia are seeking help from the European Union to find a diplomatic solution to the North Korea nuclear conundrum. But if they think the EU bloc and its core member states can take a leadership role in negotiating a deal with Pyongyang, as they did during talks with Iran over its nuclear program two years ago, they are just wrong.

Moscow and Beijing are intensifying contacts with France and Germany, the two most powerful EU countries, in an attempt to internationalize the crisis. In a phone conversation on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron agreed that North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs could be halted only through political and diplomatic means. They emphasized that further escalation in Northeast Asia was “inadmissible” – a veiled attack on the “belligerent” rhetoric of US President Donald Trump.

Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have also exchanged views on the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Beijing has urged Paris and Berlin to play a constructive role in easing the tension between North Korea and the United States and promoting dialogue between them.

The position of France and Germany on North Korea differs from that of Britain, another European heavyweight. London is aligned with Washington and thinks Beijing should do more to stop Pyongyang. British Prime Minister Theresa May has been tepid so far about multilateral talks with North Korea, instead focusing on China’s possible contribution.

The Iranian template

The EU has systematically applied the sanctions that the United Nations Security Council has imposed on North Korea. It has also approved its own set of restrictions against the North Korean regime.

Brussels is enforcing Resolution 2375, which the Security Council  adopted last week in response to the nuclear test that North Korea conducted on September 3. On Friday, it added three North Korean entities and one individual to the list of those subject to travel restrictions and an asset freeze. There are now 104 citizens and 59 entities from the secretive Northeast Asian country on the European grouping’s blacklist, considering both UN penalties and the EU’s autonomous sanctions.

The Union has always supported diplomatic negotiations to try to block Pyongyang’s excesses. EU countries believe the multilateral format that led to the finalization of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, the agreement aiming to rein in the military potential of the Iranian nuclear program, could be replicated in Northeast Asia.

In an interview with the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on September 10, Merkel pointed out that multilateral talks with Tehran over its nuclear activities were initiated by European countries. The United States, Russia and China joined them later, with the EU maintaining a role of coordination along with the UN.

Economy vs security

The problem is that there is a huge difference between the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. As Tehran has always ruled out pursuing a nuclear bomb, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un bluntly says his country will complete the development of nuclear weapons to establish a “military equilibrium” with Washington in East Asia. Iran has never produced a nuclear device, while Pyongyang has an undefined number of nukes.

The Iranian government, notably under incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, had an interest in dealing with the world powers. It wanted to unlock the country’s economy, which had been limited by the sanctions regime. In contrast, it seems that North Korea’s action is exclusively dominated by security concerns.

In this situation, it is doubtful that France, Germany or the EU as a whole can really change the course on the Korean Peninsula. The EU has repeatedly called on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and missile programs “in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner”. But this is language that Kim and his acolytes simply ignore.

The reality is that China and Russia have run out of ideas about North Korea. In this regard, their request for an intervention by Europeans is a sign of weakness, not diplomatic foresight.

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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