Soldiers march during a mass military parade at Kim Il-Sung square in Pyongyang on October 10, 2015. North Korea was marking the 70th anniversary of its ruling Workers' Party. Photo Credit: ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images.
Foreign Affairs, Military, Nuclear Weapons

North Korea: The European Union Could Help Break the Diplomatic Stalemate

North Korea’s continued progress on its nuclear and missile programs remains one of the most significant challenges to the international community. This is why the adoption of a new UN Security Council resolution that closes an important sanctions loophole and imposes closer scrutiny of North Korea’s diplomatic activities sends a strong, if late, message of unity and international resolve. But what comes next? There are a variety of options: Diplomatic normalization? This could trigger a regional arms race. Military intervention? This could plunge Northeast Asia into chaos. Unfortunately, prospects for negotiations are bleak, and unofficial discussions between North Korea and the United States are unlikely to succeed as in previous rounds.

World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it. —Schuman Declaration, May 9, 1950

I recently argued that North Korea isn’t the only actor responsible for the international community’s fatigue in addressing a dangerous security dilemma. In fact, the Six-Party Talks–only framework may have undermined prospects for exploring other types of negotiations when these talks failed. Such a situation is counterproductive as it convinces North Korea to continue its destructive behavior to achieve a new outcome. By contrast, introducing more actors into the talks could potentially reduce tensions between the main parties and could help Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo reframe the discussion. Mongolia, Singapore, Malaysia or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could be potential participants, but what about the European Union and its member states? While the European Union will never be the main actor in resolving the North Korean crisis, there is an argument for Europe’s increased participation in the debate.

The European Union’s Potential Added-value on North Korea

The European Union’s multiple-layered diplomatic approach represents a unique tool for placing pressure on troublesome countries: besides members states’ bilateral channels, the European Union is also a vehicle aimed at undertaking coordinated action once political consensus has emerged. Twenty-six out of twenty-eight EU members maintain diplomatic relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), six of which have diplomatic offices in Pyongyang (France only has a humanitarian and cultural office). These bilateral ties are diverse, with some dating back to the Cold War. They are of crucial importance to the North Korean regime, as part of its narrative on legitimacy and its appetite for international recognition, which may be attractive to them. Washington would certainly benefit from having the European Union and its members more proactively using their own diplomatic influence on the regime and its clients.

Furthermore, EU expertise in proliferation crises is often underrated. The European Union was a party to the negotiations with Iran, as was France, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Most member states actively take part in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), intercepting illicit trade flows across the Mediterranean. Moreover, the European Union has implemented one of the most comprehensive restrictive measures regimes against North Korea, which has evolved into a comprehensive strategy directly targeting the civil and military proliferation chain, as well as strategic economic sectors. Finally, the 2016 decision to put an end to hosting the DPRK’s overseas workers also represents a laudable attempt to tackle financial flows that indirectly support proliferation activities, which sets a precedent for the activities of Russia, China, and several of North Korea’s clients in Africa and the Middle East. However, outreach among the United States, South Korea, Japan, and the European Union on these practices has been limited so far, preventing full harmonization of national policies among the like-minded.

As an external actor to the region, the European Union could play a particular role in unlocking negotiations. First, it has a better record on implementing restrictive measures than, for example, some potential new Asian players, whose stance is more ambiguous. Second, it is a bureaucratic machine that has the unique capacity to build consensus among partners even when their interests are at odds. Paradoxically, the ability to observe North Korea from afar might give the European Union an advantage over the participants of the Six-Party Talks where the six countries have different vital interests at stake. In this regard, the European Union is detached just enough to dare to make innovative proposals.

Flags in front of the European Commission building in Brussels. Photo credit: Sébastien Bertrand/

Flags in front of the European Commission building in Brussels.
Photo credit: Sébastien Bertrand/

No Excuse for Inaction

The European Union has so far refrained from any active involvement in the North Korean crisis. The main justification for inaction is the “trauma” of the failure of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) experience, which financially involved the Europeans in a deal aimed at building a civil nuclear plant in exchange for North Korea abandoning its military program, but the deal ultimately fell apart. However, the main hurdle is that the European Union itself has not been able to internally define the role it wants to play in the crisis. Lacking a political signal of the need for deeper involvement, the European External Action Service (EEAS) is not in a position to take the lead on such an initiative. Because of this, the prevailing posture is that the European Union should prioritize implementing UN resolutions over autonomous action, which effectively thwarts any proactive involvement.

The European Union’s inaction reflects minor differences of opinion. There is a philosophical dispute between those states who support the sanctions policy without restriction and those who are more skeptical in principle. Several European countries had invested in building a bilateral relationship since the beginning of the 2000s; others like Sweden play a genuinely specific diplomatic role in North Korea (as the United States’ protecting power in North Korea), which makes a unified approach difficult. Also, many EU members, due to limited personnel and budget, don’t have the expertise to bring to bear on North Korea policy. These obstacles could be collectively overcome by a jointly engaging the EEAS and the most involved member states, such as France and the United Kingdom.

Finally, despite the U.S. efforts to mobilize the European Union on North Korea, there is a lasting international perception that the Union has no interest in being more than “supportive” of its partners’ efforts. This assumption is unfounded. While it is true the European Union doesn’t hold much sway in North Korea’s economy, very few countries do except for China, which will have even fewer levers since coal trade with North Korea will be capped. It is also true that the European Union is not at range of North Korea’s ballistic missiles yet, but North Korea has an intercontinental ballistic missile program (KN-08) and is developing submarines capabilities, so it is not inconceivable that Europe could be threatened at some point in the future. Above all, the North Korean crisis increasingly corrodes the benefits of the Iran deal and could, if the international nonproliferation regime were further undermined, spark instability in the European Union’s periphery. The North Korean crisis represents a unique opportunity for nuclear powers and those who support banning nuclear weapons within the European Union to collectively fight to protect the nonproliferation treaty.

Transforming the European Union into a Credible Player

The first step would be for Europe to demonstrate that it can rely on its own resources to carry out a comprehensive analysis on North Korea, so as to shine a new policy light onto the situation. To do so, EU institutions and member states must have greater access to more reliable information to develop better situational awareness and policy analysis. Indeed, the availability of open source data plays an essential role in the process as the European Union requires publicly available evidence to support policy implementation, such as sanctions designation.

Therefore, what is needed is European funding to support publicly available, open source analysis on North Korea in Europe. Existing research institutions, such as the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium could partner with think tanks in South Korea and the United States to grow policy expertise on North Korea. A very limited amount of money would allow knowledge to surge and create a virtuous circle, circulating informed analyses in Europe and beyond. It would complement and nurture the work of the UN Panel of Experts, whose mandate is still constrained by the scope of the resolutions. Rather than focusing solely on the nuclear and ballistic missile programs, such a platform should adopt a comprehensive and functional perspective, aimed at dissecting the regime’s structure in order to provide a basis for governmental action and building a database on national restrictive measures so as to facilitate international coordination.

Second, the European Union should be able to take a united approach and propose a political vision to its partners. Currently, EU actions are provocation driven, which allows North Korea to dictate the agenda: each nuclear test sparks a public outcry, quickly followed by a return to business-as-usual as the European Union is absorbed in other crises. If for any reason decisions are delayed, the momentum is broken and policy is not developed.

The European Union could overcome this inaction by relying on a more comprehensive sanctions framework. Since the January 2016 nuclear test, its policy has already evolved from low-level designations toward the targeting of high-ranking individuals involved in the decisionmaking process of the nuclear and ballistic missile program, a step that should be encouraged. Building on a Syrian precedent that facilitates the designation of categories of persons involved in abuses, it could now define general criteria for North Korean designations in order to make the identification process of those associated with weapons-of-mass-destruction programs flow better. Such a step would not be dismissed by the European Court of Justice if the individual designations it allows are supported by “specific and concrete” evidence. It would certainly help the European Union avoid endless side discussions on individual cases and focus on defining concrete objectives for its engagement with North Korea.

Finally, for the European Union to appear credible, it needs to reach a political and technical agreement internally on which North Korean actions qualify as substantial violations (the status of submarine-launched ballistic missile tests, for example, is unclear). Then, the European Union should make it clear to North Korea that any test falling into this category would entail immediate consequences. In this regard, the threat to suspend or cut the existing bilateral projects and diplomatic relationships could have a decisive impact if Pyongyang takes it seriously. While exerting increased political pressure, the European Union could offer dialogue and reactivate the historical channels of communication that existed between central European countries and North Korea, as a guarantee of a balanced approach.

Such a step would also imply sending other players, mainly South Korea, Japan, and the United States, the signal that, because the European Union is an engaged partner, its views need to be taken into account. In the meantime, it would be in these partners’ interest to seriously consider improving intelligence sharing and collective thinking as the European Union would likely be asked to support a potential deal financially if one is ever reached. In essence, they should stop considering North Korea as a regional issue and make clear that they take it for what the UN resolutions say it is: a global crisis that poses a threat to international peace and security.

Boris Toucas is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

This article was originally published as a CSIS Commentary on December 19, 2016. Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).