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A mixture of adventure, altruism and a desire not to be left behind economically is responsible for the European plunge into Korean political affairs that began this year. First Italy and then, in rapid succession, Belgium, Britain and Germany have dispatched missions to Pyongyang. Only France held back, citing human-rights and nuclear-proliferation concerns. Even the European Union dispatched a mission. And although only Italy and Britain have actually tied the knot so far, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium have all announced their intention of normalizing relations with Pyongyang soon.

Actually, setting up shop in Pyongyang is not for the faint-hearted and no one has done it to date. The preferred method has been to rely on ambassadors accredited in Beijing to make the rounds. Change, however, is on the horizon. The British will station a charge d’affaires in Seoul accredited to Pyongyang, while the Netherlands and Belgium intend to go it one better, accrediting a single envoy to both Korean capitals, albeit resident in Seoul. Such dual accreditation makes a lot of sense; it’s closer and, in theory, easier to reach Pyongyang from Seoul than from Beijing. And it will be cheaper as well, when the railroad/highway project across the DMZ linking the two Koreas is completed next year.

Paradoxically, even without formal diplomatic relations with most of the EU, North Korea has had its share of the diplomatic limelight. Though absent from the Asia-Europe Meeting in October in Seoul, it was the focal point of both attention and controversy as France, Britain and Germany sparred over conflicting priorities and timetables in the normalization race, assigning different weights to human rights and nonproliferation as preconditions.

Ideally, for an EU that aspires to common foreign and security policies, the inability to devise one for North Korea is a sobering reminder that Europe still remains very much a collection of sovereign states. These differences are particularly striking in the case of Britain and France.

Dealing with Korea has historically been a frustrating experience for European powers, which never succeeded in prying open the Hermit Kingdom (that honor went to Japan) as they did China. In the 19th century, European forays were repeatedly rebuffed, often violently. In contrast to China, Korea’s trade door remained closed to foreigners until the last quarter of the 19th century and even in the age of globalization, it is still needs prying open at times. In the light of pending EU efforts to bring allegedly unfair Korean trade practices and shipbuilding subsidies before the World Trade Organization, this is one of those times.

Altruism — the humanitarian impulse to relieve human suffering — is also a pronounced feature of contemporary European politics. However, this motive, too, however, has met with setbacks in North Korea: For example, the French-based humanitarian organization Medicins sans Frontieres, among others, has withdrawn from the country, citing excessive bureaucratic meddling. And doubts over whether European contributions to the World Food Program to alleviate hunger in the North are reaching their intended recipients or being diverted to high-level officials and the military continue to raise concerns.

The third element driving European interest is economic. Recent EU trade and investment flows to South Korea have exceeded those from the United States and even Japan. The French are busy building a TGV high-speed train and dotting the South Korean landscape with mini-malls to match a strong banking and financial presence. Many large British, German, Swiss and Scandinavian enterprises have also gained a firm foothold. Europeans seem to sense that a united Korea — a potential G7 size economy in the next decade or two if reconciliation talks take hold and the South carries out the necessary economic restructuring and financial reforms — is a prize worth the wait.

While North Korea may be less a prize than a problem at the moment, it also has a skilled, educated labor force waiting to be integrated into the world economy. No wonder Europe has been a willing partner in financing the KEDO light-water reactor project.

Two other European countries, Sweden and Switzerland, have a historical security interest on the Peninsula and are keen to play a constructive contemporary role as well. Sweden holds the EU presidency during the first half of 2001 and is currently the only EU member with an embassy in Pyongyang. It is therefore well positioned to add consistency and coherence to EU policy toward the North. For its part, Switzerland has hosted Four Party talks aimed at a new peace regime and confidence-building measures (now in recess).

Finally, Germany stands out among European countries in terms of its interest in Korean affairs. Its own unification struggle continues to intrigue and absorb Koreans. Germany has been particularly concerned with keeping its policies toward the North in sync with Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy” (although it has also emphasized the human-rights aspect that Kim has been criticized for downplaying).

However, it takes two to tango and North Korea has not been shy in pursuing Europe as a partner in its “new look” westward. From Pyongyang’s perspective, a European presence is welcome as a counterweight to the U.S., Japan and South Korea, an alternative source of aid, trade and political leverage.

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