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The Korean Peninsula as a New Diplomatic Front for the European Union

Submitted by on 14 Apr 2011 – 15:33

By Nicholas Hugh

In October 2010, the European Union signed a free trade agreement with South Korea at the EU-Korea Summit. This signals a pivotal point in strengthening their relationship, building upon their past Framework Agreement signed earlier that year, in May. South Korea and the European Union are coming closer, but at the same time this comes with the imperative to pay even greater attention to the ongoing tensions in the Korean peninsula.

In this same year of these agreements being signed, South and North Korea have seen several dangerous flashpoints in their relationship. In March of 2010, the Cheonan, a South Korean vessel, was sunk, an incident blamed on North Korean forces. More recently was the exchange of artillery fire between North and South Korean forces on Yeonpyeong Island, in November 2010, with several casualties on both sides reported.

Compounded with these exchanges of force is the failure of negotiation to reduce tensions between the states. The most recent attempts of Inter-Korean talks in February of 2011, fell through after South Korea demanded an apology for the previously mentioned incidents, which North Korea refused to acknowledge responsibility for. Worse still, neither side has currently indicated plans for a further level of negotiation.

The United States has taken a particularly strong role in the situation, currently stationing over 30,000 ground forces in bases within South Korea. Furthermore, they have been involved in the rounds of Six-Party Talks in an attempt to contain aggression in the area, in coordination with North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

However, despite this defensive deployment of force by the United States and South Korea, we have not seen a visible decline in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and aggression. The rapid escalation of aggression that both North and South Korea show in these flashpoints of contact, demonstrate that the situation is becoming dangerously volatile between the two sides.

With the economic and political benefits that the European Union will receive from the recently signed agreements with South Korea, comes the potential political imperative for increased involvement in some diplomatic capacity. The EU already has a small precedent of involvement by joining the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) in 1994. Furthermore, the EU has given over 450 million Euros in aid to North Korea, towards agricultural and technical development.

Considering the recent integration of ties with South Korea as well as the increase (and existing) economic ties to the East Asian region, it would be to the advantage of the European Union to take a proactive diplomatic role in mediation. The European Union has the distinct advantage to be seen as a relatively neutral party, largely lacking in a significant diplomatic precedent of involvement with the Korean tensions. Unlike the United States which has a strong ground presence of military forces in the area, the European Union does not have this kind of involvement, allowing it great potential leverage with its relatively neutral appearance.

What is remarkably clear in this scenario is that the eruption of aggression would be very dangerous in East Asia, both politically and economically. Having such an area of instability so close to the hubs of commerce that China, Japan and South Korea currently are, is a particularly untenable situation for all involved parties. The European Union has a uniquely neutral position having involvement with both North and South Korea, in some capacity. Unlike the United States, it does not have any forces defensively deployed in the area, further contributing to its appearance of a neutral stance. It would be a strongly advisable recommendation that the European Union reconsider its role in the area as one that could be effectively influential in containing, and more importantly, deescalating Korean tensions.