A Critical Look: The EU’s Critical Engagement Policy Towards North Korea

A Critical Look: The EU’s Critical Engagement Policy Towards North Korea

Since 1995, the EU has loosely followed a policy known as “Critical Engagement” towards North Korea (the DPRK). However, it has failed to realise its aims with the DPRK which, now, is far less beholden to the international system than before and has conducted six nuclear weapons tests over the period.

Development of the EU’s Critical Engagement Policy

The goals of the Critical Engagement policy are to support a lasting diminution of tensions on the Korean peninsula and in the region, to uphold the international non-proliferation regime and to improve the situation of human rights in the DPRK” (EEAS, 2016). Such ambitious aims have not been reflected in a robust policy towards the DPRK nor have they resulted in success on any front. The EU has followed a carrot-and-stick approach that has developed over time, though, in recent years, it has been characterised more by sanctions than incentives. According to Professor Ko Sangtu, the EU Critical Engagement Policy can be classified into the following time periods: active engagement in the years 1995 to 2002, critical engagement from 2002 to 2013 and active pressure since 2013/14 (EIAS, 2017).

The period of “active engagement” coincided with the Republic of Korea (ROK) president Kim Dae-jung’s “sunshine policy” and was characterised by food and humanitarian aid. The period was marked by positive developments with the EU becoming a member of the executive board of KEDO (Korean Peninsula Energy Develop Organisation) in 1997. Since 1998, the EU has conducted regular political dialogues with the DPRK which occurred almost annually until 2015 (Ballbach, 2019). The failure of the US’ Agreed Framework deal with the DPRK gave the EU more impetus to act and many believed the EU Commissioner Patten’s and Swedish Prime Minister Persson’s visit to Pyongyang in May 2001 marked the beginning of a new independent EU policy. The establishment of diplomatic relations between Pyongyang and the EU encouraged EU member states in the ensuing years to follow suit with their own embassies or non-resident embassies (Berkofsky, 2003). However, such hopes were not reflected in tangible successes and the 2002 nuclear crisis largely ended the policy of active engagement.

The “critical engagement” period stands in great contrast to the previous policy of aid and dialogue; the EU terminated its support for KEDO in light-water reactor development, cancelled plans to provide technological support for economic development and suspended plans to further open the North’s economy. Furthermore, in 2003 the EU parliament passed a human rights resolution against the DPRK and has since regularly cosponsored nations’ UN resolutions regarding human rights abuses in North Korea. Every year since 2005, the EU and Japan have tabled resolutions at UN Assemblies on DPRK human rights issues. The period was marked by minimal aid – an exception being the 10 million EUR during the 2011 food crisis – and a lack of dialogue and political criticism (Ko, 2017).

The years following 2013, the “active pressure” period, have continued the path of critical engagement and increased the political distance between the EU and DPRK and lowered the potential for dialogue. In 2015, the EU terminated its diplomatic engagement with the North and now only maintains informal dialogue channels, such as via the diplomatic representations of EU member states in Pyongyang. This diminishes the role the EU plays in the North Korean nuclear issue, reducing negotiation possibilities whilst increasing sanctions. 2013 marked the year that the EU surpassed the UN in the number of sanctions targeting the DPRK. Sanctions include the ban on oil and petroleum exports to the DPRK and the ban on investments into DPRK nuclear programmes and entities related to it. Since 2013, the EU’s “engagement” aspect of critical engagement has largely been abandoned for a pure sanctions-based approach.

Future of the Policy

A major strength of the Critical Engagement Policy is its vague wording and flexibility. This allows the EU to implement sanctions as well as to offer incentives as there are no determined prerequisites or conditions which have been an issue in the past for nations negotiating with North Korea, such as in the case of the US’ CVID (Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantlement) dogma. It was part of the Bush and Obama administrations’ DPRK policy and has largely been pursued by Trump, too. The EU has recently begun using CVID in its rhetoric, too. However, it would be advisable to cease this as a prerequisite for high level, meaningful dialogue. The EU has the advantage of being largely politically and geographically remote and militarily neutral in the DPRK issue – contrary to states having conflicting interests in the region which undermined negotiations in the past, such as the 2003-2009 Six Party Talks. There is great potential for track 1.5 level discussions between the EU and DPRK. These formats offer a platform for official and unofficial actors to cooperate, and EU think tanks have facilitated discreet discussions between DPRK and Western experts and former government representatives in the past (Wolleh, 2007, Ballbach, 2019). This would allow the EU to re-engage in diplomatic, high level dialogue with the DPRK after having gained a better understanding of the prerequisites both sides would have in negotiations. Furthermore, the EU has the institutions that could support the implementation of an eventual deal if made and its impartiality would aid verification and monitoring processes.

A key failure of the EU’s current Critical Engagement Policy is the efforts to remain relatively non-assertive in the issue and following the US and ROK policies. This was reflected in the adoption of a CVID-like approach throughout Obama’s presidency and the suspension of economic aid in line with the Bush administrations’ “axis of evil” approach to the DPRK following the 2002 nuclear crisis (Berkofsky, 2003). Thus, the EU’s attempts to pursue a “quiet diplomacy” and its efforts to ensure its policy is complementary to that of the ROK and US has meant that impacts have been minimal and the potential for the EU as a largely neutral stakeholder in negotiating with the DPRK remains unexploited.

Pardo, Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies, recommends a soft approach of education and skills engagement and exchange, arguing that “a population with better skills and in contact with foreign experts should be less vulnerable to human rights violations”. Through development, the state would become more beholden to the international system and thus, improve one aspect of the DPRK issue (Pardo, 2016, 4). This form of low level, soft engagement would mean that economic contributions could be used for leverage. Furthermore, increasing the DPRK’s integration in the international community would increase stability and the likelihood of negotiations. Economic development would also be necessary for the later stage of conflict resolution and peacebuilding should it be required.

A key issue to be overcome by the EU is the conflict between the supranational institution and its member states, exemplified by France’s refusal to open diplomatic ties with the DPRK, citing its humanitarian abuses. There has been too much emphasis on sanctions due to the support among all member states, the absence of economic interest in the DPRK, the lack of diplomatic engagement and third-party pressure, though this has ultimately led to no progress. Thus, Ko argues that the EU is a realist player in the guise of being a normative one (Ko, 2017). The EU’s normative actions include its attempts to engage the DPRK via aid and promoting human rights, whilst its realist actions have been increasingly evident in recent years with its reliance on economic sanctions and a lack of official diplomatic engagement.

Overall, the EU should leverage its unique position and abandon the “active pressure” path to reengage with the DPRK in diplomatic dialogue, reduce sanctions and increase education and skills exchanges. The EU ought to follow a more independent policy akin to the “active engagement” period of the Critical Engagement Policy, lest the DPRK drift further and further away from international norms and relationships within the international system.




Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of IFAIR e.V. or its members.

Lisa Buckland is in her third year of studies in Japanese and East Asian History and International Relations at The University of Tokyo and has also studied at LMU in Germany. She has interned in an NGO media campaign agency in Bangkok as well as in PR in Sydney and written articles for her university newspaper.