Six-plus-one-Party Talks? EU role in denuclearisation of North Korea

Authors: Philip Worré, ISIS Europe and Intaek Han, JPI

The Six-Party Talks are stalled and it is not clear when they will resume. Critics argue that the talks have achieved little in their efforts to denuclearise North Korea.

Such criticism may be valid seeing how the talks did not prevent North Korea from conducting nuclear tests or launching long-range missiles. Still, the Six-Party Talks are the only currently available diplomatic vehicle to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisisWhile they may not deliver results in the immediate future, these talks are likely to continue given the interest in denuclearising North Korea.

The EU takes part in multilateral sanctions against North Korea, but is not currently a member of the Six-Party Talks. There is no compelling reason why the EU should not be a party to the talks. The EU has recently demonstrated a keen interest in deepening its involvement in East Asia; and becoming an observer in the Six-Party Talks would allow the EU to act as an objective, helpful, and mutually acceptable broker, who could actively avoid the difficulties and frustrations the forum has met with in the past.

The EU has participated in regional efforts to denuclearise North Korea before: it was a board member of the now-defunct Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) and has regularly engaged in political dialogue with the DPRK since 2001, when it established formal diplomatic ties.

The EU’s member states share the common goal of achieving a lasting peace. To this effect, the EU has developed expertise in promoting democratic processes, reforming the security sector, and developing inclusive solutions to long-standing problems, with a focus on security and defence issues. The EU also has a long history of promoting diplomatic negotiations to solve major issues, and is well regarded as such.

France, Germany and the UK are currently involved in the ‘Five Plus One’ negotiations with Iran (also known as ‘E3 plus 3’); at times they have been seen to adopt ‘hawkish’ attitudes. Yet it is unlikely that the EU joining the Six-Party talks would create the same problem, because a majority of EU member states also have diplomatic relations with the DPRK, and some have a long history of involvement in DPRK-related negotiations.  Sweden, for example, has five representatives stationed at Panmunjom as members of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC), and Poland also attends some NNSC meetings, through South Korea.

The current situation in East Asia presents unique challenges for the EU, such as the ongoing China–US struggle for regional hegemony. The complex relationships between the parties involved, and the potential repercussions for the North Korea debate could make it difficult for the EU to maintain a strong level of credibility in negotiations and in the region in general. The position adopted by some EU member states at the ‘Five Plus One’ talks with Iran may either prevent proper negotiations with the DPRK or highlight possible contradictions in various countries’ stances.

If the EU joins the talks as an observer, it could act as a buffer between the other six parties: the EU has a history of providing humanitarian and development aid to the DPRK (over €366 million since 1995; equivalent to US$458 million), it has know-how in cultivating multilateralism, it favours a ‘soft power’ approach (as opposed to NATO’s more ‘traditional power’ style), and does not have a military presence in East Asia.

In a deadlock situation, where negotiations are difficult because of the deeply entrenched political positions of different parties, an additional actor could facilitate new discussions. Given its status as an impartial outsider, the EU can play a uniquely constructive role in the multilateral talks for denuclearising North Korea. The proposal for ‘Six plus One’ talks is therefore worth considering.

Philip Worré is Executive Director of ISIS Europe. He is an expert in European security and defence policy as well as disarmament and non-proliferation.

Intaek Han is a policy advisor to the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Associate Research Fellow at the Jeju Peace Institute.

This was first published by the Jeju Peace Institute: JPI PeaceNet No. 2012-14