The EU can become a player in North Korea


Global Europe

Picture of Ramon Pacheco Pardo
Ramon Pacheco Pardo

KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Reader in International Relations at King’s College London

Two summits and another meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have yet to produce the long sought-after denuclearisation-for-peace agreement. Indeed, one year after the Hanoi summit, US-North Korea relations remain locked in stalemate.

On the positive side, diplomacy rather than the ‘fire and fury’ of 2017 define the current state of US-North Korea relations. Even if Washington and Pyongyang have not held a round of working-level talks since October, both have reiterated that they are committed to negotiations. This suggests that Trump and Kim believe that they can reach an agreement, to build upon the joint declaration signed in June 2018.

Indeed, history tells us that Washington and Pyongyang are likely to sign a workable agreement at some point. After all, presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both reached deals with North Korea that were, initially, implemented. President Barack Obama also signed an agreement shortly after Kim Jong-un took office. All these deals included a commitment to denuclearisation by North Korea in exchange for peace and diplomatic relations with the United States.

Restoring dialogue would give Brussels a platform to share its concerns directly with Pyongyang

At some point, therefore, it seems likely Kim will reach a deal with a US president – whether it be Trump or his replacement in one- or five-years’ time. In the meantime, the EU can play a larger role in facilitating diplomacy and, eventually, supporting implementation of any agreement Washington and Pyongyang will sign.

It is fair to say that Brussels is punching below its weight in the Korean Peninsula. It is true, of course, that for geographic and structural reasons Washington and Beijing are the major actors in the region. But that does not mean the European Union cannot do more to be a proactive player. First that means undoing some of the self-inflicted mistakes of recent years. For instance, the interruption of the political dialogue, last held in 2015, means that Brussels has given up its best platform to discuss denuclearisation, peace or human rights directly with Pyongyang. Instead, European officials have to rely on second-hand accounts.

Facilitating dialogue between North Korea and the United States, similar to what Sweden has been doing, may be useful, but ultimately the EU needs to talk directly to North Korea. Restoring dialogue would give Brussels a platform to share its concerns directly with Pyongyang.

The EU can and should play a more active role if and when the US and North Korea sign an agreement

In addition, the EU has done too little to support peace on the Korean peninsula. To be sure, EU officials have made repeated statements backing President Moon Jae-in’s reconciliation plans. But there is little in terms of a publicly available strategy that lays out the specific diplomatic, economic or people-to-people measures Europe might be willing to take to support such efforts.

To be sure, the EU can and should play a more active role if and when the US and North Korea sign an agreement. For one thing, Brussels should seek to provide diplomatic and political support to any deal to ensure that it does not collapse – as the 1994 Agreed Framework and 2013 Six-Party Talks agreement did in the past. The case of the Iran Deal shows that Europe can help to at least maintain an agreement alive for a number of years even if one party defects.

In addition, in the event of a deal, the EU will be called upon to provide economic support to North Korea. Brussels should oblige, but only if it has a say in the kind of economic package North Korea would receive. In other words, the EU should press to have a seat at the table. As for the provision of aid to North Korea, the Asian Investment Facility, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) or the EU’s own aid budget can be used for this purpose.

Does Brussels want to be a more relevant player in one of the crucial security issues in East Asia?

Also, EU member states can provide technical assistance to support denuclearisation of North Korea. Dismantlement, transportation, storage and destruction of North Korea’s nuclear materials will be a very complicated task. Monitoring whether North Korea is keeping its side of the bargain will be crucial. Scientists and inspectors from France, Sweden and other member states with relevant expertise can be involved in these procedures.

Above all, Brussels should make up its mind. Does it want to be a more relevant player in one of the crucial security issues in East Asia? If the answer is yes, the new Commission has a golden opportunity to reverse years of inaction, and lead European efforts to support peace in the Korean Peninsula.

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