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The Role of the European Union in North Korea PDF Print Email
Unia Europejska
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1. Introduction

Asia, with its numerous states of different economic, political and social systems, represents an interesting challenge to the EU and will test the ability of the Union to apply its' developing Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) effectively, consistently and uniformly. The commitments it has undertaken in the region emphasize "an effective contribution to sustainable development, security, stability and democracy through institutional dialogue and economic and financial co-operation."1

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) is one of the most challenging countries that this policy could be directed towards. It lies at the heart of northeast Asia and is one of the least known or understood countries on the globe. Its' relationship with the outside world is characterized in the international media mostly by the tense relations it has with the USA, China, South Korea and Japan and their diplomatic actions. Human rights abuses it perpetrates on its' population are also well covered. The present nuclear crisis is frequently in the news as are the incessant admonishments of the US administration and the responses by the North Korean government. Many ngos repeatedly report on the violations of basic human rights directed towards its own population that the North Korean regime is guilty of. Other aspects however, are less frequently covered by the media, such as the role that the EU plays and its influence and relations with the DPRK.

The EU is not a major actor in the present situation of tension and confrontation that has brought the Six Party Talks to a standstill, it is not located near the region in question nor does it have vested interests in the country and its' interactions with North Korea are not covered much by the media. It is nonetheless involved and remains a player that tries to bring a constructive approach to the problems that afflict North Korea both internally and externally.

This article is a brief description of the contributions the EU is making to engagement, dialogue and the advancement of human rights in North Korea. The positions of the European Commission will be outlined together with the actions it has undertaken to foster a climate of dialogue and engagement while upholding one of the central ideas of its Common Foreign and Security Policy, human rights. The actions in the area of human rights of the European Parliament will also be discussed in this paper.

2. EU position and activities

The European Council concluded on 9 October and 20 November 2000 that the approach to the Korean Peninsula and the DPRK would be characterized by a commitment to support the inter-Korean reconciliation process and to increase assistance to the DPRK in response to progress by North Korea in addressing the concerns of the EU and the international community as regards respect of human rights, non-proliferation and security issues, progress in inter-Korean reconciliation, economic structural reform and social development.2

As the role of mediator in the current crisis would not be possible for the EU given the Union's current common foreign and security policy and has not been requested by the parties involved, the Commission has played to its strengths and has made the core of its' engagement strategy its' aid through technical assistance, humanitarian assistance and food aid. The was coupled with a political dialogue that in time is hoped to foster respect for, and eventually adoption of, democratic principles and human rights by the North Korean regime and which at the current time has been suspended.

As a result of the present nuclear standoff most relations between the EU and the DPRK have been frozen, with a technical aid program the sole remaining engagement in the country. The EU clearly puts the responsibility for the freeze on the shoulders of the North Korean government stating that it remains open to resume further contacts when the DPRK makes concrete and committed steps implementing phase II of the Six Party Talks and moves into phase III.

3. Political dialogues and human rights

The first human rights dialogue between the two countries took place between the EU and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of North Korea in Brussels in June 2001. "The ministry officials acknowledged the importance of human rights3, but argued that they had their own standards and that their priority concerns were the right to subsistence, right to development, and equality."4 The EUs' comments are usually very reserved concerning the meetings, however "it has admitted that its talks with North Korea on human rights 'do not yet match', in quality and substance, its human rights dialogue with China."5 It must be noted that the present human rights dialogues undertaken by the European Commission are under considerable criticism both internally and externally due to the poor transparency, lack of stated benchmarks and no set structure. A second round of talks were held in June 2002 with the EU voicing concern "at the lack of access by UN human rights rapporteurs and NGOs, as well as the absence of any official statistics on human rights issues."6 In 2003 the EU sponsored a resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva which was adopted on 16 April and which preceded the DPRK announcing that they would suspend the human rights dialogue.

Some argue that this was a direct result of the UNCHR resolution however, unless North Korea plans to seriously commit itself to democracy and human rights the dialogues would have likely had no effect on the people suffering from human rights abuses in the Asian country. "Progress on the talks on human rights and democratization remains very unlikely in the near future, given North Korea's reluctance to discuss the issue at all. Indeed, such talks are considered to be 'regime threatening' in Pyongyang, and are therefore off the agenda."7 North Korean officials have also sited cultural differences and respect for local circumstances as excuses for not implementing human rights. The distances between the two parties remains great and there is little or no desire by the DPRK to address the issue seriously or shortly given the danger these topics pose to their governance. On the EU side representatives of the Commission state that the political and human rights dialogues will remain off the table until there is completion of phase II and beginning of phase III of the Six Party Talks.

4. Humanitarian, technical and food aid

Since 1995 the EU has provided a total of 344 million euro in aid, consisting of food, medical and sanitation assistance as well as the supply of agricultural equipment.8 At present the European Commission is solely providing technical aid to the DPRK. ECHO (Humanitarian Aid Department), the directorate general (DG) of the Commission in charge of humanitarian and food aid closed its office in May 2008 after evaluating the current situation in the country and concluding that its mandate of supplying relief to natural disasters and providing food in times of crisis did no longer apply as the situation had improved. Access to food in certain areas such as ex-mining regions is difficult and food distribution is poor due to the lack of fuel for transport and modes of transportation themselves, however the Commission did not consider the situation as critical, for which the mandate of ECHO necessitates in order to apply.

Europeaid, the DG managing the delivery of aid but also active in the development field tackling universal issues such as good governance, human and social development, security and migration, natural resources, and more, is still active in the DPRK. It has one officer present and works with six NGOs present on the ground in the DPRK providing technical aid. There is a total budget of 35 million Euro for the 2007/2010 period and two types of aid, direct and indirect. The programs it is managing target people and communities at the local level and are focused on building resilience in farms, self sustainability and educating people in environmental management.

Direct aid consists of products such as fertilizer and farming equipment while indirect aid supports the NGO projects based on the ground. These projects deal with education in erosion, deforestation, pest management, sloping land management and agricultural techniques. Water and sanitation assistance is limited at the moment but compensated by other organizations present on the ground. The Commission stresses that this aid will be available no matter the political situation and current crisis. Technical aid is of considerable importance to the Commission as it considers it one of the long term solutions to the root causes of many problems in countries it works in. The Commission also remains ready to intervene if natural disasters or famines occur anytime in the future. Development aid however, is not being offered and will not be considered until the nuclear crisis is peacefully settled with the previously stated accomplishments of the DPRK of implementing phase II and beginning phase III of the Six Party Talks.

5. Sponsored resolutions at the UN

The European Union has also sponsored several UN Resolutions at the Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly since 2003. Entitled "Situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea" 9, these resolutions articulate the fears regarding the worrying situation of human rights in North Korea and note reports of both widespread and systemic violations. The European Commission (EC) also issues an EU annual report on human rights in the world. The 2007 report stated that: "The EU also called on China to apply the principle of 'non-refoulement' to North Korean refugees in China in line with China's international obligations." This passage regards the Korean refugee situation in China and its treatment of refugees discussed at the EU-China human rights dialogues. For the DPRK specifically the document states: "The EU remained seriously concerned about continuing reports of systemic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the DPRK. First-hand evidence is almost impossible to obtain; EU missions are refused permission to visit judicial, security or penal institutions, and external observers are denied access.

DPRK refused to engage substantively with the EU on its concerns, citing successive United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) and United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Resolutions and has declined to co-operate with the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Prof. Vitit Muntharbhorn. DPRK maintains that there can be no progress on human rights until the EU refrains from tabling resolutions against DPRK at UN for a. The EU has in turn declined to accept pre-conditions for the resumption of the Human Rights Dialogues, suspended in 2003. In January 2007 a local Troika demarche was undertaken in order to seek DPRK's adherence to the UN Convention against Torture. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs strictly refused the idea of becoming a party to this Convention." 10

6. Conclusions

The EU remains a candidate for a larger role in the inter-Korean reconciliation process, the nuclear crisis and in improving the human rights situation along with the democratization process of North Korea. At the moment, although it has frozen its political dialogue with the DPRK, it remains active in the area of assistance. As its Common foreign and Security Policy develops and becomes stronger the EU could play a pivotal role in the area by dedicating itself to a long term peaceful solution to the difficulties of the region but for this to happen it must convincingly apply itself and take a more independent position over the current crisis, such as independently assessing the military threat that the DPRK poses to the world and not necessarily blindly backing the US administrations assessment. This has not yet happened and the European Commission has stated that there will be no further engagement before the nuclear crisis is resolved. This position remains unadvisable as EU engagement, strategy and impact will be measured also on its ability to work through the crisis without the situation descending into violence.

Human rights violations in North Korea continue to take place frequently and the EU, through its various institutions, has sought to both engage the regime, through its' political and human rights dialogues, and chastise it, with resolutions both at the UN and the EP. The human rights dialogue is however difficult and questions have been raised regarding its effectiveness; including other third country dialogues. The DPRK leadership remains reluctant to discuss human rights, considering them 'regime threatening', and so the EU has also engaged the country through aid focused on the local population and communities so that they will at least be able to sustain themselves in the future. The EU has human rights at the center of its Common Foreign and Security Policy and as this policy grows stronger the EU will be able to apply its principles more effectively with third countries as it becomes more able to take a common and independent position.

1See The EC-Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) Country Strategy Paper 2001-2004.


3Cezary T. Szyjko, Zenon ƚlusarczyk, Prawa czlowieka w dokumentach EU, Piotrkow Tryb. 2009.

4Glyn Ford, North Korea on the brink (London: Pluto Press, 2008), p. 141

5Axel Berkofsky, "EU's policy towards the DPRK-Engagement or Standstill?", 2003, European Institute for Asian Studies.

6Ibid. 3. p. 141.

7Ibid. 4. p. 18.

8The EU's relations with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea-DPRK (North Korea), May 2007, European Commission, 09/09/08

9Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Resolution 2003/10. 16 April 2003.

10EU Annual Human Rights Report 2007. European Communities 2007, Luxembourg.