North Korea: Which Chances for Peace ?

Posted in Koreas | 03-Dec-07 | Author: Dr. Bernhard J. Seliger

"North Korea is in danger for nuclear and missile technology proliferation"
"North Korea is in danger for nuclear and missile technology proliferation"
The beginning of North Korea`s denuclearization following the successful six party talks in Beijing as well as the second inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in October 2007 opened the opportunity for changing relations in Northeast Asia. The softened stance of the weakened US, as well as the economic difficulties in North Korea following its isolation after the nuclear test both contributed to these changes. For the European Union they are the opportunity to play a greater role in Northeast Asia due to its various diplomatic and non-diplomatic channels in Northeast Asia, using “soft power”. This, however, should neither be merely the role of funding the bill of reconstructing North Korea nor should the EU allow the actors to use it as a pawn in the emerging new Northeast Asian order.

The inter-Korean summit meeting of early October 2007 once again focused the eyes of the world on a world region which at the same time is a centre of economic and political power, with two major world powers, Japan and the People’s Republic of China, the “factory of the world” and a region of instability. The second meeting only in sixty years of division of the Korean Peninsula was highly symbolically loaded: with a historic border crossing on foot, wordy invocations of peace and reconciliation and an ambitious, though vague programme of economic cooperation – what of these results will become tangible, though, only time can show. The six party talks which at the same time like the summit meeting released a statement confirming the process of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, are an institutional framework for the interaction of the most important actors in the region. But what of the European Union? Does it play any role in Northeast Asia?

Northeast Asia poses a triple challenge for world security: The first, and most obvious, is the unresolved problem on the Korean Peninsula, the division into North and South Korea and military confrontation with one regime, which not only has an appalling human rights record, but also is a danger for nuclear and missile technology proliferation. The second, less obvious one is the problem of tensions between major nations in the region, namely the historical legacy of Japan vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and South Korea and the recently equally confrontational Chinese-Korean relations. Different interpretations of history are as well responsible for tensions as territorial claims, in the case of Korea and Japan for a tiny, rocky island in the Japanese Sea (which itself as a name is contested – the Koreans prefer the name “East Sea”). Between China and Korea the future of North Korea looms large, with some South Koreans thinking that it might end up as a “fourth Northeast Chinese province” (besides Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning). Also, potentially the Korean minority along the border to North Korea might become a problem. The last challenge for world security arises from the involvement of Northeast Asian powers, and here especially the PRC, in the world order; in politics, as a new coming superpower using vast amounts of resources to modernize their army and as a booming economy with a thirst for raw materials, which recently has been satisfied more and more in deals with international outcasts.

The line-up in Northeast Asia is pretty clear due to a limited number of players in the region: Japan, the prosperous island and still dominant economy, though weakened by one-and-a-half decades of sluggish growth, remains in a firm alliance with the USA and tried in recent years to reassert itself as a regional and international power, a claim, which got recently a boost from remarks of US president Bush on its readiness for a security council permanent seat. South Korea is a showcase of successful democratic and economic transformation, an IT powerhouse, but crippled by division of the country and in a difficult (hate-love-)relationship to its alliance partner, the USA. North Korea with its bizarre leadership and more than ten years of unsuccessful economic reform, on the brink of famine, but at the same time a major missile manufacturer and claiming to be a nuclear power, remains the center of confrontation. The People’s Republic of China is the major antagonist of the American and Japanese designs in the region, a promoter of China-centered economic and political integration of the region, the last staunch allied of North Korea and at odds with its neighbors due to this policy, as well as being itself not free from problems of ongoing economic transformation and multiethnic society. Finally, Russia, the newly awakening power, with the vast, largely untapped resources of the Russian Far East, but being unable to resolve the problem of migration of its citizens from the Far East to the Western Russian provinces with more moderate climate. The USA are heavily involved in the region, being allied and having troops stationed in Japan and South Korea (as well as the adjacent Southeast Asian Taiwan). Other powers and regional groupings, like India, Australia and New Zealand and ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, play a more limited role in resolving security issues in Northeast Asia. And the European Union?

The EU is not a regional power; moreover, differently from other world regions, the EU has not a major colonial past in Northeast Asia, with some exception over China. It is not part of the embryonic security structures in the region, like the ASEAN regional forum or the six party talks. At the same time the distance also offers some advantages for the EU. Being not specifically interested in the region, but being generally interested in a peaceful development of the world, without the burden of a colonial history, the EU has the chance to support peace initiatives on the second track, namely not by direct, “hard” diplomacy, but by “soft power”, as the eminent political scholar Joseph Nye called the involvement through dialogue, investment and people-to-people exchanges.

This strategy offers advantages, but also has its limitations for the EU. Take the relations of the EU to North Korea, for example. The EU established diplomatic ties with North Korea in 2001. By now, it has become a major partner for North Korea in humanitarian aid, with frequent visits from the EU or EU countries’ representatives in the last years. Humanitarian assistance, membership in the now defunct KEDO, the organization once founded to provide North Korea with two light water reactors under the Geneva framework of 1994, which was last year finally disbanded, and capacity building measures are among the policy instruments the EU uses vis-à-vis North Korea. Though the nuclear issue overshadows all other relations, there are by now a multitude of bilateral and multilateral initiatives from the EU to North Korea. The deterioration of North Korea’s relations with other powers meant that the relative weight of European relations, European business and European visits to North Korea increased. However, the outlook for political cooperation remains unclear. The EU had hoped, as a “distant power” with no strategic interests and colonial legacy on the Korean Peninsula to play a role as a mediator between North Korea and the United States. However, this “turned out to be a case of wishful thinking, although a recent European Parliament initiative to set up a seven-nation meeting in Brussels to discuss nuclear issues with Pyongyang suggests that the EU hasn't caved in just yet. The well-meant initiative, however, still needs the EC's go-ahead and follow-up, and Pyongyang's strategy of snubbing the EU on security issues does suggest that food and cash are all that North Korea wants from Brussels.”, wrote Axel Berkofsky in the Asia Times in 2003. This harsh statement on the reality of the EU’s limited role in the North Korean issue is still true, since relations have not fundamentally changed in the last years. The nuclear test of October 2006 even tipped the balance more in the direction of a military confrontation, where the EU’s potential role becomes increasingly unrealistic. While the February 13 agreement and the subsequent developments partly reversed the logic of military confrontation, also the potential role of the EU was sidelined to some extent.

The author, Dr.Bernhard Seliger, with two South Korean soldiers south of the DMZ: "The EU can play an important role…
The author, Dr.Bernhard Seliger, with two South Korean soldiers south of the DMZ: "The EU can play an important role in the wider framework of Northeast Asian relations."
When the EU established relations with North Korea, it set out its strategies on relations in a country strategy paper. Technical assistance was an important part of this strategy and a total of 35 million euros had been set aside for EU technical assistance projects until 2006, making the EU a substantial donor of technical assistance to the DPRK. The EC-DPRK Country Strategy Paper (CSP) and the EU's National Indicative Program (NIP) for the DPRK set out the framework and objectives for technical assistance projects in North Korea. The CSP and NIP provided for training in market economic principles and projects designed to support and promote sustainable management and the efficient use of natural resources and energy in the DPRK, the development of a reliable and sustainable transport sector, rural development as well as institutional support and capacity-building. However, the admission of a nuclear weapons programme by North Korea stopped ODA and the EU froze the money earmarked for technical assistance.

Instead, humanitarian projects alone were allowed, executed by a multitude of bilateral and multilateral donors and implementing organizations, and coordinated on the European side by ECHO, the office for humanitarian aid of the EU. When in 1995 flooding as a result of environmental degradation brought upon the country by its dysfunctional economic system as well as famine brought North Korea to the brink of collapse, it opened its doors to international aid. The EU, via the Food Aid and Food Security Programmes, provided significant aid since 1997. While originally food aid to the needy has been the focus of the programme, soon it shifted to structural food assistance, in particular, the provision of inputs and technical assistance. ECHO assistance already started in 1995, targeting the improvement of access to safe water and sanitation, providing drugs and medicines to health institutions. From early 2005 onwards North Korea was included in its numerous exchange and development assistance programmes to NGOs. The focus on NGO-level cooperation allows the EU to stay true to its mantra that ODA can only be given after a peaceful solution of the nuclear crisis; at the same time NGOs could explore the willingness of North Korea to embark on serious training and economic transformation programmes as well as the possibilities and areas of successful cooperation. Among the calls were those in the field of “open NGO cooperation”, environmental programmes and, also, the ASIA Invest II programme, a business and capacity building programme. Hanns Seidel Foundation, a Munich-based NGO, since March 2006 carries out the “EU-DPRK Trade Capacity Project”, a capacity building programme on the integration of North Korea into international trade; so far, under this programme four training units have been held in Pyongyang for mid-level bureaucrats of the trade bureaucracy as well as managers of trading companies on issues like basic trade theories, foreign investment, trade intermediaries, export strategies etc.

The relations of the EU and North Korea go far beyond the few aspects sketched above. By now, numerous experts of EU countries participate in low-key activities in industrial re-organization, among them joint ventures, training activities from language training to business related training activities and cultural activities. Germany, the largest economy of the EU, is particularly active; among others, there is frequent culture exchange and a library (study room) with German media has been provided to Pyongyang. Nevertheless, the activities have reached a form of plateau, from which it is difficult to conceive progress without a real resolution of the nuclear issue, going beyond the declarations of intent of early and mid-2007, and a willingness to tackle other problems, among them the pressing human rights questions. And another important caveat has to be made about the future relations: Often it is alleged (in particular, by North Korea itself, but also by many foreign observers) that the sanctions of the US and the hostility of the international community, maybe together with natural disasters, are reasons for the bad state of the North Korean economy. This is clearly wrong, since the reasons can be found exclusively in the mismanagement and dysfunctions of the North Korean economic system. The much-touted economic administrative reforms of July 2002 only marginally altered this fact, since no basic decision for economic transformation has been taken. Moreover, however, the often heard conclusion is wrong that a lifting of sanctions or a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue will bring prosperity to North Korea. While it might bring a massive inflow of aid (in particular, there are prospects of Japanese reparation payments, though they are by no means legally binding and politically secured), it does not alter the state of the North Korean economy and the lack of human capital development. It can, therefore, only be the beginning of serious efforts to change North Korea.

This requires much more than the possibility of sanctions-free trade: it requires the competitiveness of North Korean products, it requires a legally and financially safe environment for trade and it requires that North Korea tackles its problem of old debt, which it defaulted on long time ago. All these issues are often forgotten in the debate about the impact of the external relation on North Korea’s economy. Capacity building measures like the EU-DPRK trade capacity project can help to raise these issues and, eventually, lead to the required change. However, for this we still all have to go a long road.

All in all, relations between the EU and North Korea are on the crossroads: to overcome donor fatigue and also political wariness of an extremely unreliable partner, important efforts by North Korea have to be made. It is currently, despite the February 13th agreement, a great question, if North Korea is willing to do so. Despite its various assurances to the South Korean government (from whom they expected massive aid) and the international community nothing substantial has been done yet. The question, if North Korea accepts the European Union as a serious partner for economic cooperation and reform or sees it rather as a (though large-scale) pawn in its game with the international community, came to a new test in October 2007, when the summit-meeting between North and South Korea took place. Until now, it has been a familiar pattern that European and international, US, Chinese and South Korean aid have been substitutes for North Korea: when it enjoyed good relations with one of the donors, others were restricted, sometimes in harsh terms as the Pyongyang-based European NGOs in 2005. Reliable relations are difficult to be built under such circumstances. The summit with South Korea might re-direct all the focus of North Korea’s attention to its Southern neighbour, who (moreover) is a very patient, a very generous and a very “easy” donor (in that monitoring requirements for donated aid are minimal or non-existent). To prevent such a situation, where the EU and other powers are mere substitutes for an aid-maximizing regime (under the constraint of the dangers of possible opening), political coordination with the other powers in the region becomes crucial.

"The last challenge for world security arises from the involvement of Northeast powers in the world order."
"The last challenge for world security arises from the involvement of Northeast powers in the world order."
In terms of political benefits of EU engagement policies towards North Korea and EU coordination with its partners in South Korea, the US, and to a lesser extent, China and Russia, the EU policies can give some additional push into the direction of a peaceful resolution for the nuclear standoff, i.e. providing additional incentives for fulfilling its promises of February 2007. However, overall EU influence on the issue remains small. Among the possible benefits, given close policy coordination with South Korea and the US (which is not always the reality until now) would be the establishment of an additional informal channel of conveying information about intentions of the international community to North Korea. Such an understanding of using European policies towards North Korea could be particularly helpful in the current situation, given the amount of time and money invested by Europe into building trust with North Korea and its role as an observer directly not involved in the crisis and the negotiations. But currently, this role seems to be not considered as important by either of the relevant parties, leaving the EU for now clearly on the sideline of the endgame on North Korean development.

Can the EU have a role besides “funding the bill”? Certainly, major powers are not interested in an institutionalized involvement of the EU in the emerging Northeast Asian security system, be it the six-party-talks or other approaches. But, the EU has one important asset, namely experience in setting up a multilateral security system, under the adverse conditions of systemic conflict. This system, CSCE (and later OSCE) did not work particularly well, but it did work, and it encouraged, among other developments, the wave of democratization in Eastern Europe.


For the European Union, this means the following course of action should be taken:

  • The EU should use its experience to participate in the establishment of a similar system in Northeast Asia through capacity building, in particular in the reconstruction of North Korea, through its many non-state actors already active in the country

  • The EU should also maintain its many formal and informal channels of communication with the Northeast Asian countries, and combine its already important economic role more actively with political initiatives

  • By this, as the disinterested, “honest” broker, the EU can play an important role in the wider framework of Northeast Asian relations: not forcing its way into bodies it does not belong to, but rather offering second tracks of diplomacy through “soft power”, as well as offering to transfer knowledge, in particular about its own experience of transformation and overcoming division

  • At the same time, close transatlantic cooperation and cooperation with Japan should ensure that the EU is not merely abused as a pawn in the new Northeast Asian order

  • An important area, where European knowledge can enhance international relations in Northeast Asia, is the lesson how to cope with differently evaluated historical legacies between Japan, the PRC and the Koreas

  • In this last issue, which includes questions of territoriality (e.g. Tokdo/ Takeshima Islands in the Japanese Sea or East Sea), questions of historical justice (like the comfort women issue) and questions of cultural identity (like the Goguryo-debate between China and Korea), the European experience of Franco-German and to some extent Polish-Czech-German reconciliation can offer rich lessons