Europe and the North Korea conundrum: navigating the China‒South Korea‒United States triangle

Navigating the China-South Korea-United States triangle

Ramon Pacheco Pardo


"We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow” (House of Commons Debates 1848). This quote from Henry John Temple, better known as Lord Palmerston—twice prime minister and three times foreign secretary of the United Kingdom (UK) between 1830 and 1865—holds true across time and space. It highlights one of the core tenets of the Westphalian world order, at least from a realist perspective: self-interested states living in an anarchical international system ought to maximise their power and wealth. Sometimes, this can be done through alliances with other states with similar interests. However, these alliances will disintegrate once they lose their purpose.

The post-Westphalian, liberal international order based on international organisations pooling the resources of groups of states is meant to have put an end to this self-interested approach to international relations. States bring their resources together and self-interest is diluted, replaced by the common good. The European Union (EU) is considered the greatest expression of the post-Westphalian world order. This has led to the argument that the EU will project its model to the rest of the world and behave differently in international affairs. In its most popular conception, the EU is a normative power exporting its values to the rest of the world. These values, including democracy, human rights and the rule of law, put the individual rather than the state at the centre of foreign policy (Manners 2002). Self-interest is replaced by a post-Westphalian common good of supposedly universal values.

Except that the world remains Westphalian. Self-interest still rules, with international institutions unable to promote the common good when the core interests of a particular state are at stake. Neither the United States (US) nor China, the two greatest contemporary powers, will sacrifice their core interests for the sake of the common good. As their relationship fluctuates between bilateral summits with specific practical outcomes and ongoing ideological and trade wars, international organisations demonstrate their inability to govern the international system.

In this context, the EU has decided to put its interests at the core of its foreign policy. As EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep

Borrell (2020) has put it, Europe must embrace its power, “deal with the world as it is” and “devise credible approaches to dealing with today’s global strategic actors: the US, China, and Russia”. This does not preclude using international organisations when necessary or working together with, or against, the US and China when it suits Brussels' interests.

This chapter analyses the policy of the EU towards one of the most pressing global challenges in this era of China-US competition: North Korea’s nuclear conundrum. It will do so by positioning the EU’s interests in the context of its turn towards a realist (in the international relations sense) policy but also in the context of a realistic policy towards an issue in which not only China and the US but also South Korea have a central role. Therefore, the chapter actually positions the EU in the China-South Korea-US triangle which its North Korea policy must navigate. This chapter thus shows why and how the EU’s policy towards North Korea, rooted in its own interests rather than any claims about common values, can lead to either cooperation or competition with China and the US.

Building on the three guiding questions that inform this volume, this chapter argues that the EU should: 1) take a pragmatic approach to the North Korean nuclear conundrum, avoiding merely symbolic gestures so as to be considered a serious actor in Asia-Pacific security affairs; 2) implement a policy informed but not determined by norms and values, as befits a realist power; and 3) avoid taking sides between China and the US, which is feasible considering that both support the denuclearisation of North Korea.

The chapter is divided as follows. In the following section, I outline the EU’s permanent interests by examining its main foreign policy strategy documents. I then place these interests in the context of the North Korea nuclear conundrum. This is followed by a section analysing these interests with reference to the China-South Korea-US triangle or, perhaps, the EU-China-South Korea-US quadrangle. In the concluding section, I summarise my findings.

The EU’s global strategy: evolution, not revolution

Throughout its post-Maastricht Treaty history, the foreign policy of the EU is said to be based on liberal values. The European Security Strategy (ESS) "A Secure Europe in a Better World” emphasised building an international order based on multilateralism and cooperation with partners as core elements of the EU’s foreign policy (Council of the European Union 2003). This was reinforced by the ESS implementation report, which called for "partnerships for effective multilateralism” (Council of the European Union 2008).

In 2016, the Global Strategy for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy (Global Strategy), “Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe”, replaced the ESS. The Global Strategy reinforces the EU’s commitment to both multilateralism and its partners. Multilateralism and the EU’s strategic partnerships are seen as mutually reinforcing. Indeed, the Global Strategy calls for flexibility in the form of global governance on a case-by-case basis. Depending on the threat, multilateral

Europe and the North Korea conundrum 109 institutions may take a leading role; alternatively, partnerships may be as important as multilateralism (European Union 2016).

However, the behaviour of the EU while President Barack Obama was in power suggested that it was willing to take a realist approach to foreign policy when its core interests were at stake. Most notably, Brussels and Washington publicly sparred during negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) as they sought to maximise (realist-inspired) relative gains at the expense of (liberal-inspired) absolute gains. Although the EU and the US have fairly similar economies, differences on issues such as labour standards, investorstate dispute settlement provisions or (alleged) healthcare privatisation derailed the negotiations (Aggarwal and Evenett 2017). As a result, TTIP negotiations ultimately failed.

Interestingly, the Global Strategy did not specifically mention China as a partner (European Union 2016). Indeed, High Representative Federica Mogherini presented a separate China strategy almost in parallel to the Global Strategy. The "Elements for a New EU Strategy on China” communiqué took a decidedly realist approach towards Beijing. Brussels made it clear that it wanted mutual benefits in its relationship with Beijing, and that it sought to promote the rule of law in this bilateral relationship (European Commission 2016), with the implicit assumption that this had not been the case before. The China strategy put the EU’s own interests at the centre of its relationship with Beijing.

This realist approach to international relations has strengthened as a new European Commission took over in December 2019. President Ursula von der Leyen (2019) has called for the EU to “learn the language of power”. High Representative Borrell (2019) has vowed to make a "Geopolitical Commission”. The message is clear: in an era of “America First”, Chinese assertiveness and Sino-American competition, the EU must use all the tools at its disposal to be an actor of significance within global affairs. Brussels must also put its interests first; traditionally liberal tactics and goals might be pursued when necessary, but self-interest and the use of all of Europe's power tools must be prioritised.

In summary, the foreign policy of the EU has remained fairly stable since the ESS was adopted in 2003. The Global Strategy adopted in 2016 does not deviate significantly from the ESS. Partnerships and multilateralism in particular are cornerstones of the EU’s foreign policy. Since the ESS implementation report adopted in 2008, both these cornerstones have been linked to each other. At the same time, however, the EU has been realist when necessary. Its relationship with the US, even during the “good years” of the Obama administration, as well as with China, shows this to be the case. Furthermore, even multilateralism and partnerships have a place in a realist foreign policy—as shown below in the case of North Korea.

The EU and the North Korea conundrum

North Korea’s nuclear programme is one of the EU’s main security concerns in Asia. China’s rise aside, it is arguably the top one. Indeed, North Korea wasnamed in the 2003 and 2008 ESS implementation reports by specific reference to its weapons of mass destruction (WMD); non-proliferation in the Korean Peninsula is mentioned in the 2016 Global Strategy. North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs have thus been a concern for the EU from the outset of its security strategy, a period of almost two decades.

Zooming in on the EU’s Asia-specific security concerns, the “Enhanced EU Security Cooperation in and with Asia” (Asia Security Strategy) conclusions adopted by the Council of the European Union in 2018 prioritise the proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN; emphasis added) weapons as a top concern for the EU (Council of the European Union 2018). North Korea is not mentioned as a threat by name; however, no country is. Nevertheless, North Korea is the main proliferation concern in Asia. Therefore, it is a top security worry on the Asian continent according to the EU’s first-ever Asia Security Strategy.

Under its "critical engagement” policy, in place since the mid-2000s, the main goal of the EU when it comes to the North Korean nuclear conundrum has been clear: non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (European External Action Service 2016). Other goals include stability on the Korean Peninsula and improvement of the human rights situation of ordinary North Koreans. However, the main objective is to prevent Pyongyang from illegally selling and transporting its nuclear technology to third parties.1 This underscores the realism underpinning the EU's North Korea policy as well as its pragmatism. The normative goal of improving the human rights situation of ordinary North Koreans is secondary to the EU's own security, in the form of the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Why does a realist EU prioritise North Korea's nuclear proliferation activities? Above all, it is due to Pyongyang's proliferation efforts in the Middle East (Pacheco Pardo 2018). Several of its past, present and would-be nuclear weapons and technology clients are based there. The region is sufficiently unstable without declared nuclear powers: the emergence of a declared nuclear power in the Middle East could lead to a domino effect whereby its enemies would seek to follow the same route. That would be very dangerous for Europe as it borders the region.

A related, key concern is the threat that North Korea's nuclear technology could fall into the hands of jihadist terrorist groups, leading to the explosion of a dirty bomb in a European city (Pacheco Pardo 2018). Terrorism is one of the key security concerns for the EU, as evidenced in the ESS, the ESS implementation report and the Global Strategy, as well as the Asia Security Strategy. Indeed, several EU Member States have suffered jihadist terrorist attacks for decades now (Europol 2019). If a dirty bomb were to explode in Europe, there is a high probability that nuclear or other materials would have been smuggled from the Middle East.

North Korea's nuclear proliferation and its programme in general is also perceived as a threat by the EU due to the example that it sets for other would-be nuclear powers (Pacheco Pardo 2018). The case of North Korea shows that the international community has little if any means of preventing would-be nuclear powers from developing their own weapons programs. Sanctions, diplomatic

Europe and the North Korea conundrum 111 pressure or negotiations have all proved insufficient to prevent Pyongyang from developing its nuclear program. Certainly, North Korea has a more developed programme than Iran or Syria ever had. However, these programs were even less developed in the past, while Pyongyang has been able to develop its own over the decades.

Finally, the EU is also concerned about North Korea's proliferation activities because they pose a general threat to international law. In particular, there is a challenge to the nuclear non-proliferation regime (ibid.)- North Korea (in)famously left the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that underpins the regime in 2003 without any significant consequence (Hur 2018). This sets a particularly negative example since the NPT has long been hailed as a success story.

In other words, the EU takes a realist approach towards North Korea's nuclear programs. Its main concerns relate directly to self-preservation, instability in its immediate neighbourhood and a terrorist attack on its soil. Preservation of the non-proliferation regime matters insofar as it relates to the EU's own security, including preventing North Korea being an example for other would-be nuclear powers that could also undermine the regime.

In terms of tactics, the ESS, ESS implementation report and Global Strategy all emphasise the use of partnerships. These include both China and the US, which, as we will see in the next section, share the EU's concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program. Indeed, the North Korea nuclear issue is a rare example in which the US and China have shared the same goal from the outset of the second nuclear crisis in 2002 (Funabashi 2007; Hur 2018; Pacheco Pardo 2019). EU partners on this matter also include South Korea, the other main player in Korean Peninsula affairs. These nations are three of only eleven EU strategic partners (Ferreira-Pereira and Guedes Vieira 2016). In practice, cooperation includes dialogue and meetings, support for partners’ non-proliferation policies or information and expertise exchange.

Brussels also prioritises multilateralism. The EU was disappointed with its exclusion from the Six-Party Talks (6PT) to solve the North Korean nuclear issue (Lee 2017). Convened between 2003 and 2008, the 6PT were the main multilateral forum involving North Korea and could conceivably make a return in the future (ibid.). Indeed, the EU sees a role for regional organisations to address security risks in East Asia (Council of the European Union 2018). Interestingly for the EU, the Northeast Asia Plus Community of Responsibility (NAPCR) launched by President Moon Jae-in in 2017 reserves a seat at the table for the EU (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea 2017). This shows that the EU can credibly ask for a role in future North Korea security discussions.

Arguably, under its “critical engagement’’ policy, sanctions have been the main tool for the EU to address the North Korea nuclear conundrum in recent years. Brussels has one of the most comprehensive North Korea sanctions regimes in the world. EU sanctions are based on a transposition of United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions, but they include autonomous sanctions that go beyond what the UN requires (European External Action Sendee 2016). There is an agreement among EU Member States that sanctions should remain in placeunless and until North Korea starts taking meaningful steps towards denuclearisation (ibid.).

Direct dialogue with North Korea, another component of its “critical engagement policy”, is another tool for the EU to address the North Korean nuclear issue. However, the dialogue was last held in 2015 (European External Action Service 2015). This contrasts greatly with the use of sanctions, which has increased since 2016. The EU has thus withheld dialogue from North Korea as the country accelerated the development of its nuclear weapons program, including the development of ICBM capabilities.

While partnerships, multilateralism, (potential) dialogue and even sanctions— as opposed to war—suggest that the EU’s tactics to address the North Korean nuclear conundrum are underpinned by liberal ideas, the reality is different. As realist thinkers dating back to Morgenthau's seminal work have argued, states should use multilateralism and dialogue out of self-interest if they can thus maintain or strengthen their relative power (Morgenthau 2006). As for sanctions, they ultimately affect the general population, so there are questions as to whether they can actually be considered a liberal tool. Indeed, realists claim that sanctions are ultimately based on gaining relative power (Mearsheimer 2001). Also, the forceful interdiction of North Korea's nuclear and WMD shipments shows that the EU is willing to use military means to deal with Pyongyang.

Indeed, the EU and its Member States are part of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). This counter-proliferation initiative was launched by the US in 2003 (U.S. Department of State 2020). As then US Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs John Bolton (2007) stated, North Korea was the main target of PSI. The legality of PSI has been challenged since it interferes with the right of innocent passage and freedom of navigation (Logan 2005). However, the EU’s embrace of this tool from its outset proves that, ultimately, the EU will follow the realist principle of using all tools at its disposal to guarantee its own security.

Sparring vertices, converging interests: the China-South Korea-US triangle and North Korea

The North Korea nuclear issue has been a top concern for China, the United Sates and Pyongyang's southern neighbour, South Korea, at least since—if not before— the first North Korea nuclear crisis of 1993-94. Focusing on the second nuclear crisis of 2002 onwards and its aftermath, North Korea’s nuclear programme has remained a top concern for all three countries. Indeed, the 6PT set up in 2003 to address the second crisis was the first instance of sustained Sino-American cooperation to deal with a hard security issue since at least the end of the Cold War (Funabashi 2007). In other words, this issue had an impact beyond the "narrow” focus of dealing with North Korea’s nuclear programme and actually needs to be placed in the context of broader US-China dynamics.

Despite the ideological differences and geopolitical interests across successive American, Chinese and South Korean administrations, all of them have shared at least one common goal: North Korea’s denuclearisation.2 Furthermore, it can

Europe and the North Korea conundrum 113 be said that all their leaders have shared one main approach to try to achieve this goal: engagement and diplomacy (Pacheco Pardo 2019). Certainly, there are differences in policy among these administrations. China has consistently argued for diplomacy and a step-by-step approach, whereas the US and South Korea take confidence-building measures in parallel as their way to deal with North Korea. George W. Bush, in the case of the US, and Roh Moo-hyun and Moon, in the case of South Korea, have supported this approach. However, broadly speaking, the US' Barack Obama and Donald Trump and South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye believed that North Korea should denuclearise—or at least take substantial steps in this direction—before diplomacy can start in earnest and before economic engagement with the US, South Korea and the international community at large can be implemented (ibid.). Nevertheless, the fundamental approach of denuclearisation through engagement and diplomacy has remained remarkably unchanged since 2003.

This matters for the EU insofar Brussels has consistently argued that engagement and diplomacy are necessary for dealing with North Korea. Indeed, the fact that the term "engagement” has been part of the EU’s North Korea policy since the mid-2000s suggests that Brussels does believe in the benefits of this approach (Kim and Choi 2020). As a non-central actor in the North Korean nuclear issue, it would be difficult for Brussels to press for a different approach if China. South Korea and the United Stated opposed it.3 But the EU’s approach aligns with that of the three key actors in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue. In this case, the EU’s self-interest in the choice of this particular tactic creates an opportunity for cooperation with the US and China, showing that a realist EU can nonetheless use a liberal tool when it suits its self-interest and aligns with the interests of Beijing and Washington.

North Korea's development of its nuclear programme has led to an increase in the number and scope of sanctions. Especially since Kim Jong-un came to power, Pyongyang has dramatically accelerated its nuclear and missile test programme (CSIS 2020). Sanctions have consequently increased in parallel, especially in 2016-17, when North Korea accelerated the development of its nuclear and missile test programme until it successfully tested two ICBMs and conducted its sixth nuclear test.4 As of 2020, North Korea is subject to a comprehensive sanctions regime that goes beyond the country's nuclear and missile programme and targets the country's economy and general population.

Bush, Hu Jintao and Roh prioritised engagement over sanctions.5 These three were in power when Pyongyang's nuclear programme was still underdeveloped— or at least its level of development was relatively unknown. Indeed, Pyongyang's first nuclear test in 2006 came towards the end of the Bush and Roh presidencies, as well as towards the end of Hu's first term in office (Pacheco Pardo 2019). UN Security Council sanctions were imposed following the nuclear test and a missile test earlier, in July 2016, but there was still a preference for diplomacy and engagement over sanctions (Hur 2018).

The situation changed when Lee came to power in 2008 and Obama one year later. From the outset, Lee made it clear that his administration would take atougher approach towards Pyongyang. This included implementing sanctions as well as the imposition of South Korea’s own autonomous sanctions following the ROKS Cheonan sinking and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Both of them were North Korean attacks on South Korea in 2010, resulting in South Korean casualties (Cha and Katz 2011). Park also followed a tougher approach towards North Korea and the South Korean National Assembly passed a North Korean Human Rights Act allowing sanctions to also be imposed on human rights grounds (Pacheco Pardo 2019). Both leaders left the door open to engagement, but only after North Korea had decided to take steps towards denuclearisation.

Obama was the first US president to prioritise sanctions over engagement to deal with North Korea. Washington made use of the UN Security Council to gradually increase sanctions on Pyongyang and also reinforced sanctions on human rights grounds (ibid.), a policy also followed by Trump. Even though Trump held two summits and another meeting with Kim Jong-un, the US leveraged the UN Security Council and unilateral sanctions on North Korea as well (ibid.). In contrast, Hu and later Xi Jinping have continued to advocate engagement over sanctions to deal with Pyongyang. Xi did allow the 2016-17 rounds of sanctions to dramatically escalate pressure on North Korea. But China started to call for their removal shortly after Trump and Kim held their first summit in June 2018. Similarly, Moon did continue with sanctions implementation after he came to power in 2017 but also called for sanctions relief as diplomacy took hold on the Korean Peninsula (ibid.).

Faced with a clear split between the US and China, especially from 2018, the EU decided to take sides. From 2016, Brussels increased sanctions as part of the “critical” component of its critical engagement policy. In particular, it imposed its own autonomous sanctions and pressed third countries to impose the UN Security Council sanctions regime as well (Pacheco Pardo 2018). While this was part of the policy toolkit available under the “critical engagement” policy first launched in the mid-2000s, it was also a means of supporting a core interest of the EU: good transatlantic relations. Indeed, support for US policy under Obama was a way to show that, on this issue, there is no transatlantic divide. In the case of Trump, the EU wanted to avoid yet another problem with the unorthodox president (ibid.). Therefore, Brussels used the North Korean nuclear issue as a way to pursue its core interests, not only with regards to the non-proliferation regime but in also terms of relations management of the great powers.

From the onset of the second North Korea nuclear crisis until Trump’s election, there has been a general agreement that the North Korea nuclear issue should be solved through multilateral mechanisms. The rationale is that North Korean denuclearisation has to be put in a broader context including inter-Korean reconciliation, normalisation of diplomatic relations between the US and North Korea, a peace regime for the Korean Peninsula and North Korea’s economic development (Funabashi 2007). Thus, the 6PT were the main venue for addressing the North Korea nuclear issue throughout the 2000s, and there were regular calls to restore them during the 2010s.

The 6PT were set up in 2003 under Bush and Hu. A trilateral meeting involving China, North Korea and the US was quickly expanded to include initially South Korea, and then Japan and Russia by the time the first meeting was held in August (ibid.)- The last round of talks was held in December 2008, shortly before Bush left office. Obama for the US, Xi for China, and Lee and Park for South Korea supported continuation of the 6PT. However, North Korea's opposition to their restoration led to their eventual collapse (Hur 2018). It should also be noted that Obama. Lee and Park made continuation of the 6PT contingent on Pyongyang's moves towards denuclearisation (Pacheco Pardo 2019).

The situation with Trump was different. He made it clear that he did not believe in multilateralism, which he thought impinges on American policy. Thus, Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA to stop Iran's development of its nuclear programme and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement involving, among others, 11 Asia-Pacific countries (Council of Foreign Relations 2020). Similarly, Trump took a bilateral approach to the North Korean nuclear issue. Faced with this situation. South Korea's Moon refrained from calling for a resumption of the 6PT (Pacheco Pardo 2019). Having said that, implementation of any denuclearisation agreement with North Korea is a different matter. The Trump administration let European countries know that their support would be welcome during its implementation. Europe would also be called upon to contribute to a multilateral economic package to prop up the North Korean economy (Pacheco Pardo 2018).

The multilateralisation of the North Korean nuclear issue poses a dilemma for the EU. Support for multilateralism is a cornerstone of its foreign policy, as explained in the previous section. However, the EU was conspicuously excluded from the 6PT. This exclusion came in spite of the EU being one of four executive board members of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (KEDO). KEDO was the organisation set up to provide two light-water reactors to North Korea in exchange for its denuclearisation under the Agreed Framework signed by President Bill Clinton and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (KEDO 2020). The EU did repeatedly support the 6PT in public (Kim and Choi 2020) but being excluded from this process without being asked was a diplomatic blow. Thus, the EU would support a multilateral process, especially when it comes to implementation of an agreement. Crucially, however, the EU would not be willing to "pay without a say”. In other words, it would have to be consulted when implementation decisions are made (Pacheco Pardo 2018). This reinforces the point that self-interest is paramount to the EU. It is not willing to simply provide support to a multilateral initiative that it cannot shape to try to achieve its goals. Its participation in multilateralism conies at a price. This is the realist approach to multilateralism, which emphasises its use if it strengthens its user's power.

Furthermore, there is in relation to multilateralism the question of taking advantage of the multilateralisation of the North Korea nuclear issue to build a Northeast Asian security mechanism. The thinking is that a shared interest in the denuclearisation of North Korea could be translated into a permanent security institution to integrate Pyongyang into security threat management in the region. The US pressed to include a Northeast Asia Peace and Security Mechanism (NAPSM) in the 6PT Joint Statement of September 2005 (Funabashi 2007). However, this mechanism did not prosper. Park then sought to launch a Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI) when she came to power in 2013 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea 2013) but this initiative did not gain major traction. Moon then picked up and expanded on NAPCI by suggesting the creation of a NAPCR when he took office in 2017. Interestingly for the EU, it is explicitly included in NAPCR (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea 2017) in sharp contrast to NAPSM and NAPCI, from which it was excluded.

Multilateralism is a core interest of the EU, so logically it has been supportive of the potential creation of multilateral security institutions in Northeast Asia (Lee 2016). This is especially the case with NAPCR, of which the EU would be a part. This is an example of the EU siding with South Korea since the US has not seriously pressed for a regional security mechanism since the 2000s, and China has not made any serious suggestion in this respect. It is in the self-interest of the EU to support the establishment of a multilateral security institution in Northeast Asia. Brussels has its own experience of multilateral peace and cooperation to share; it can make pragmatic use of one of its normative components to enhance its soft power in the region. It is also, at best, a middle power in the Northeast Asian context. It thus makes sense to side with one of the middle powers in the region—South Korea—to press for an institution that would give voice to nongreat powers. Furthermore, supporting a multilateral mechanism for Northeast Asia would give the EU a seat at the discussion table that it currently lacks, boosting its presence in the region.

Conclusions: The EU’s permanent interests and Sino-American relations over North Korea

The EU has a set of permanent interests over North Korea. These include nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, the stability of the Korean Peninsula and improving the human rights situation of ordinary North Koreans. On the issue of non-proliferation, Brussels is concerned with the development of nuclear weapons programs across the Middle East, nuclear technology falling into the hands of terrorist groups, the example that North Korea may set for other would-be nuclear powers and the undermining of international law. This suggests an approach premised on the realist assumptions that actors prioritise self-preservation.

Brussels also has a set of well-defined tactics for addressing the North Korea nuclear issue: the use of partnerships, multilateralism, sanctions, direct bilateral dialogue and the forceful interdictions of North Korea's WMD. These tactics are also informed by a realist approach to international relations. They do include policies from the liberal toolkit but. from a realist perspective, these can be used to boost relative power. Furthermore, EU policies also involve the decidedly non-normative approach of the use of force and the controversial use of sanctions. Inother words, the EU is open to use all tools at its disposal in order to strengthen its own security.

Taking a realist, self-interest first approach to dealing with North Korea leads to instances of both convergence and divergence with China and the US, as well as with South Korea. There is an agreement on the ultimate goal by American, Chinese and South Korean administrations dating back at least to the early 2000s: denuclearisation through engagement. This suits the EU since it links with its ultimate goal and preferred policy. The EU's self-interest thus aligns with the interests of the three key players—North Korea aside—on Korean Peninsula affairs.

Notwithstanding the above, the EU has had differences with China over the use of sanctions and with the US when it has refrained from supporting multilateralism under Trump. The latter is particularly interesting, for it shows that Washington might not always support common liberal foreign policy tactics. These cases matter insofar as they show that the EU’s approach might not always align with those of the key actors on the Korean Peninsula.

What should the EU do when its approach is at odds with that of China and/or the US? Taking a cue from its realist turn—more clearly exemplified by its Global Strategy and von der Leyen’s call to "learn the language of power” —Brussels should not budge. Neither the US nor China will look after Europe's interests when dealing with North Korea. Consequently, the EU should not necessarily follow American and Chinese policy when it goes against its preferred approach. In practical terms, this means following a policy that will mix both cooperation with China and the US, plus South Korea, as well as, in some cases, divergence.

The EU should therefore take a pragmatic approach to the North Korea nuclear issue, using all policies at its disposal. It cannot afford to make symbolic gestures if it wants to be taken seriously as a security actor in Asia-Pacific affairs. Even more importantly, its own security interests are at stake when it comes to the denuclearisation of North Korea. In this sense, norms and values should be part of the EU's thinking about the North Korea nuclear conundrum but should not determine it. Liberal tools may be used but so should all components of the EU's power projection capabilities. Following from this realist logic, the EU should not align with China or the US. Thankfully, its position is very similar to Beijing's and Washington’s when it comes to North Korea's denuclearisation. But full alignment is counterproductive for there have been, and will be, cases when thinking about tactics will differ.

In summary, the main policy recommendation for the EU is to continue to pursue its main goals by using a mix of tactics. When it comes to goals, Brussels' prioritisation of non-proliferation aligns with the focus of Beijing, Seoul and Washington on denuclearisation. As for tactics, there is a high degree of convergence with China, South Korea and, especially, the US. Nevertheless, there are bound to be differences in approaches with Beijing and Washington, for their interests in the Korean Peninsula and approaches to world politics will not always match. In these instances, the EU should focus on its own self-interest and not deviate from its goals and tactics. This consistency will enhance its role in Korean Peninsula affairs.


  • 1 The UN Security Council Committee established pursuant to Resolution 1718 (2006), or the North Korea sanctions committee, has confirmed Pyongyang’s proliferation activities. Alleged recipients of North Korea’s nuclear exports and/or expertise include Egypt, Iran, Libya and Syria (Berger 2016).
  • 2 Certainly. China also considers stability on the Korean Peninsula to be central to its foreign pohcy. However, both Hu Jintao’s and Xi Jinping's administrations consider North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme a threat to stability; hence, their prioritisation of denuclearisation. Likewise, South Korean leaders dealing with a nuclear North Korea consider inter-Korean reconciliation and, potentially, reunification as important— especially the liberal Moon Jae-in. But both conservative and liberal South Korean leaders consider North Korea's denuclearisation a pre-condition for full reconciliation (see Funabashi 2007; Hur 2018; Pacheco Pardo 2019).
  • 3 Not being a central actor in the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue should not lead to buckpassing from the EU. To begin with, the EU’s security is directly affected by North Korea’s nuclear program, as explained in this chapter. Furthermore, the EU’s Asia Security Strategy explicitly posits that the EU should become more involved in the region’s security affairs; among other things, this enhances the EU’s prestige—and therefore power—at the global level and in the region. In addition, three of the EU’s strategic partners, China, South Korea and the US, are the key players in solving the North Korea nuclear issue; supporting their position vis-à-vis Pyongyang can help Brussels receive their support on other security matters. Finally, and from a theoretical point of view, buck-passing is not possible in cases of bipolarity because there is no third power to catch the buck (Mearsheimer 2001). This applies to bipolar East Asia, where the EU has no third power to pass the buck to.
  • 4 For a list of UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea, see United Nations Security Council. 2020. Resolutions.'securitycouncil/sanctions/niS/resolutions.
  • 5 The US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Macau-based Banco Delta Asia in September 2005, accusing it of facilitating North Korea’s money laundering. The Bush administration also led UN sanctions imposed on North Korea following its July 2006 missile tests and September 2006 nuclear test. However, enforcement was weak. Bush administration officials have confirmed that the main policy towards North Korea was engagement through the Six-Party Talks (Funabashi 2007; Hur 2018; Pacheco Pardo 2019).


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