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Europe’s inertia in the Korean crisis

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Default profile picture Morag Young

North Korea is proposing to suspend its nuclear programme. This is an opportunity for the EU to finally participate in the negotiations.

What is going on inside the head of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-il? During the last few days, North Korea has continued to send out contradictory signals over its willingness to resolve through diplomacy the crisis it triggered when it revived its nuclear programme more than a year ago. The United States, South Korea, Japan, and also China and Russia, have one aim alone: that Pyongyang accepts participating in a new session of negotiations between the six countries after those of August 2003 in Beijing failed. Why does the European Union continue to remain in the background with regard to these discussions?

Kim Jong-il’s “daring concessions”

On Tuesday 6th January, North Korea proposed suspending its nuclear activities, both civil and military. In exchange, Washington would have to “simultaneously” remove the country from its ‘axis of evil’ and resume its fuel oil deliveries which were suspended after the revelations about North Korea’s nuclear programmes in October 2002. A “daring concession” according to Kim Jong-il. A change of heart too since on Monday 5th January, that is to say just the day before, North Korea had mentioned a “delay” in, or even a “withdrawal” from, negotiations if America did not make a preliminary gesture.

Kim Jong-il’s new offer came the very same day that an American delegation arrived, without official mandate, in North Korea for a stay anticipated to last until Saturday 10th January. The delegation is made up of a group of experts led by Syg Hecker, the former Director of the American Nuclear Laboratory in Los Alamos. Invited by Pyongyang, this delegation may visit the Yongbyon site, the main North Korean nuclear complex. This would be a first since the expulsion of UN inspectors at the end of 2002. By authorising this visit, Kim Jong-il wants, apparently, to prove that he really does have nuclear arms in order to begin new negotiations from a position of strength.

Europe’s weak contribution

These ‘concessions’ are the result of intense diplomatic activity launched at the end of 2003. At the beginning of December, the United States and its allies, South Korea and Japan, had proposed to Pyongyang, through China, guaranteed security in exchange for ending its nuclear programme. In this context, a delegation from the European Union visited North Korea via Beijing between 9th to 11th December. Led by Guido Martini, the Director General for Asia in the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, this delegation reiterated the EU’s “firm support” for negotiations between the six countries. Questioned over EU’s willingness to participate, one of the members of the Delegation, Mr Westerlund from the European Commission, replied that the EU “did not want to interfere in the nuclear negotiations process”.

Why such a nervous attitude? The EU seems to be content with the role of simple sponsors: the Union has set aside approximately 393 million Euros for humanitarian and technical aid for North Korea since 1995. The Union has never moved away from this ‘inert’ diplomatic position: remote support for the negotiations in the hope of a resolution to the crisis before it makes its entrance.

Now that progress in this situation has possibly stalled, the EU must nevertheless invite itself to the next session of negotiations. Insofar as Europeans do not have military interests in Asia, they would be the ideal mediators in a ‘dialogue between the deaf’ between Washington and Pyongyang. On one side, the Americans want to eliminate a ‘rogue State’ which is in part responsible for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction around the world. On the other, Kim Jong-il is defending the survival of his regime by raising the stakes over nuclear technology. This is a unique opportunity for the Union to put its commercial power to use in the spheres of international law and the peaceful settlement of disagreements – two notions that seem to be fast disappearing these days.

Translated from L’Europe molle dans la crise coréenne