North Korea is currently deadlocked in a state of “double isolation,” which makes engaging with it highly difficult, if not impossible for the time being. Yet, the country will eventually come out of its self-imposed isolation and, in one way or another, will seek to re-engage with the international community. Whether this will occur in 2022 or in 2023 remains to be seen. Even when personal contacts become possible again, both European officials and conveners of Track 1.5 initiatives with North Korea must be aware that the playing field to engage with North Korea has considerably changed over the past few years. While some challenges already existed before the global pandemic and North Korea’s national lockdown, a number of novel obstacles have emerged in the meantime.
No Changes to the EU’s Sanctions-Based Approach on North Korea
A key challenge with regard to re-engaging North Korea is the EU's own so-called “Critical Engagement” strategy or, more precisely, its sanctions-based approach adopted since 2015-2016. Since the Critical Engagement strategy entered its current phase of “active pressure,” the EU’s North Korea strategy has promoted a passive and reactive North Korea policy that has shown an almost exclusive focus on restrictive measures, leaving little diplomatic room for re-engagement. In fact, in line with its active pressure strategy against North Korea and the subsequent strengthening of the sanctions regime, Brussels dramatically decreased its political engagement with North Korea before suspending the Political Dialogue with North Korea in 2015. The basic logic that sanctions will only be lifted when North Korea makes tangible steps towards denuclearization did not change in the EU and there are thus no indications (yet) that Brussels will alter its sanctions-based approach against North Korea for the time being. Rather, in March 2021 the EU adopted its first human rights sanctions against North Korea, thus adding another layer to its most comprehensive sanctions regime currently in place. Most recently, on December 12th, the U.S. imposed the first new round of sanctions on North Korea under the Biden administration, signaling a continuation — instead of a weakening — of the international community’s sanctions-based approach towards North Korea.
No Space for North Korea in Europe’s Indo-Pacific Discourse?
In recent years, political priorities both in the EU and its member states have shifted considerably towards the Indo-Pacific. While North Korea geographically belongs to the region, the discourse around the Indo-Pacific in Europe has, by and large, excluded the country. While it is hard to imagine that a discourse on Northeast Asia would have been possible without addressing the “North Korea issue”, this is pretty much what has materialized in the European discourse on the Indo-Pacific. As a result, North Korea is not perceived as an Indo-Pacific actor – or at least not one with which common goals can be pursued. However, the exclusion of North Korea from the discourse on what is arguably among the EU’s most significant foreign policy shifts in recent decades is not conducive to Europe’s interests in the region – not least due to the country’s potential to severely disrupt regional security developments and thus complicate the implementation of Indo-Pacific-related initiatives. It may be assumed that this exclusion, which not least reflects the lack of political priority that the EU attaches to the North Korea issue, will not make re-engagement with North Korea any easier.
A New Landscape for Track 1.5 Initiatives with North Korea?
European Track 1.5 initiatives have, at times, played a crucial role in sustaining and/or facilitating dialogue with North Korea. Especially when official Track 1 diplomacy with North Korea was, by and large, absent or severely constrained, as was the case in 2017, think tanks and academic institutions in several European countries such as Sweden, Norway, Finland and Spain have created important spaces for discreet discussions between North Korean officials, Western experts and (former) government representatives on the Track 1.5 level. Moreover, European Track 1.5 initiatives have also repeatedly facilitated official dialogue between the major conflict parties. With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and North Korea’s strict national lockdown, however, European Track 1.5 dialogues with the country came to a halt. Unlike other countries, such as Iran, it was not possible to continue these dialogues online. Given the extended period of time that has passed, and the manifold changes that occurred, conveners of European Track 1.5 initiatives with North Korea, too, will most likely face a very different playing field once engagement with North Korean officials becomes possible again – and they, too, are faced with many “unknown unknowns” regarding the question of re-engaging North Korea – questions that must be addressed by conveners and practitioners of Track 1.5 dialogues: Is there a future for the respective European Track 1.5 dialogues with North Korea? If so, will the respective initiatives still deal with the same interlocutors? Is there a need for change in — and of — the respective formats? Which themes are to be discussed once Track 1.5s can be held again? What are the North Korean priorities?