The EU and North Korea: A Story of Underestimation

By pieter.baert91@gmail.com

THE 2013-CRISIS

While North and South Korea are slowly reaching agreement on the reopening of the Kaesong industrial region, the world seems to have already forgotten how tense the situation has been on the Korean peninsula in the first half of 2013. The Korean crisis initially started with a nuclear weapon test on the 12th of February, which was heavily condemned on the international stage. Hereafter, events quickly took a turn for the worse. North Korea aired several propaganda films on national television, which showed American cities in flames. In March, the crisis came to a height when North Korea threatened to opt out of the Armistice Agreement, which had ended the Korean War in 1953. However, as had been the case many times before, heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula slowly but surely cooled down. Over the course of the last few months, the North Korean regime has softened its tone extensively and has now adopted a more conciliatory style of negotiation with their southern neighbors.

When one looks back to this crisis, it becomes clear again who the important actors were in this conflict. As the crisis reached the mainstream press, it was mostly President Obama and his Chinese counterpart whose statements attracted worldwide attention. The question arises: where was the EU? The European Union as a whole stayed rather invisible during this crisis. On the 13th of March 2013, the European Parliament did meet to discuss the crisis, in which some MEPs urged for a relaunch of the infamous Six Party Talks and asked High Representative Catherine Ashton to further support the UN sanctions against the Korean regime. Hereafter, the conventional bland statement was sent to the DPRK stating that the EU condemned the regime’s current actions. However, all this made no impact in North Korea nor did the EU’s statements caught the eyes of the press. Again, it was shown that only the United States, China and the two Koreas seemed to be the only actors in this notorious conflict. However, one should realize that the ongoing situation on the Korean peninsula holds consequences for Europe as well.

EU TRADE IN EAST ASIA

While at first sight the situation on the Korean peninsula might seem harmless for European citizens, the European Union needs to be aware that the stakes are high for them as well. Non-attention on the side of the European Union towards the Korean conflict might be proven harmless in the long run. Firstly, a conflict or even rising tensions on the peninsula, could significantly hamper the free-trade agreement between the EU and South Korea. This FTA has been hailed as one of the most important agreements of the EU’s external trade policy. Moreover, it can be assumed that an escalating conflict would also negatively influence trade throughout the whole region, which will damage the EU’s trading scheme in the end even more.

ASIAN VIEW OF THE EU

In the second place, the EU should be aware of the perception of the Korean conflict in the world and how active participation by the EU in the Korean peace-process might significantly influence the Asian view of the EU. The Korean conflict, a remnant of the Cold War, has been referenced in countless Hollywood films or TV cartoons. As a result, North Korea has become the most notorious and well known security conflict of today’s world. If the EU, who likes to boast about its soft power, wants to be taken seriously as a security actor, then the Korean case does pose itself as a huge opportunity. Active participation on the side of the EU, would not only establish the EU as a serious peace-actor in the East-Asian region, but would also promote the EU’s peace-capabilities on the international scene. Moreover, given the fact that many Asian countries such as Japan, China, South Korea, Indonesia, India, etc will become the key actors in the 21st century, the EU better shows that it does care if it wants to be considered as a real gamechanger in the Asian region. Strong EU-diplomacy on the Korean peninsula will eventually echo to other Asian countries.

In sum, it can be argued that the EU’s current lackluster approach towards North Korea, will eventually have a negative influence on both the EU’s trade as well as on the Asian perception of the EU’s capabilities as a peace-actor. However, as the history of the Korean peninsula teaches us, a new crisis will sooner or later erupt which will provide the EU with a new opportunity to play a prominent role. One can only hope that this time the EU will push itself to the forefront of the international scene and establish itself as a real dealmaker on the Korean peninsula and in the wider Asian region.

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