EU's diplomatic moves support Seoul's strategy for June summit
By Carlo Trezza
The adjective “historic” must be employed with parsimony if it is to be credible. However, I do not hesitate to use it with regard to the forthcoming meeting between President Kim Dae-jung and the chairman of the Defense Council of North Korea, Kim Jong-il.
Since the partition of the Korean Peninsula in 1945, this will be the first meeting of this kind. The fact that it could be arranged is in itself a great achievement - the proof that the policy of engagement and peaceful coexistence is the winning and only reasonable way to address and hopefully to solve the Korean crisis.
In the past two years, this policy has been pursued with consistency and resilience by the South Korean administration (and which has nothing to do with appeasement) and has received worldwide support.
Credit must also be given to the North Korean authorities. For them, dialogue with the South, which appears as a natural feature to us, must look as a bold and even a risky proposition.
North Korea did not present the traditional preconditions for dialogue this time - withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea and repeal of the National Security Law, which had been one of the main stumbling blocks to negotiations in the past. They might reappear during the negotiations, no longer as preconditions but rather as objectives.
A debate has now arisen among scholars on why North Korea accepted the South Korean proposal for a dialogue, which it had constantly refused over the past six years. As long as the study of North Korea remains the last form of Kremlinology, the answer will be a matter of speculation. Let us be content with the fact that dialogue is indeed to take place at the highest level and that North Korea has changed its previous posture and given up strongly held positions.
More than ever in the past, the destiny of the Korean Peninsula is now in the hands of the Korean people, both in the North and in the South. The credit for this new reality goes first and foremost to them.
The international community, especially the “major players” in the East Asian scenario, have played an important supportive role. The European Union can be counted among them.
By endorsing the engagement policy since its outset, by establishing a dialogue with the North, by granting humanitarian aid, by exploring possible avenues for economic cooperation and by contributing to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), the EU has made a significant contribution to the stabilization of the Korean Peninsula.
Together, the 15 member states of the European Union have gathered a sufficient “critical mass” to play a role in this scenario and have demonstrated that they can act swiftly and efficiently.
Italy's decision to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea last January should be seen in that framework and is consistent with Europe's strong support for the “sunshine policy.”
It was not necessary, and probably even not advisable, for all EU members collectively to establish diplomatic relations with the North. As a matter of fact, it would not have been possible, since some EU countries had taken that step prior to their joining of the EU.
Consultation with South Korea has been an important feature of our policy. Before taking such a step, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lamberto Dini personally met with South Korean leaders several times and President Kim Dae-jung's recent state visit to Italy gave the opportunity for a high-level consultation which became instrumental to Minister Dini's visit to North Korea at the end of March, the first by a Group of Seven minister.
On this very day, the United States and the North Korea are holding negotiations in Rome. A forum on enhancing stability and international dialogue on the Korean Peninsula will be held on June 1-2 in the Italian capital under the auspices of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Officials and experts on Korean affairs from all over the world will converge to Rome on that occasion.
Entertaining diplomatic relations with a country - especially a “problematic” country like North Korea - gives one the advantage of being able to convey messages directly and at a high level.
The more relations are strained, the more important it is to have high-level access. This has been Italy's philosophy in its recent dialogue with the North. It has also been our approach in dealing with some other problematic countries around the world.
In a crisis situation, it is imperative to be able to convey the ap-propriate message to the appropriate authority at the appropriate time in order to avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations. This can only be accomplished if a constant dialogue with one's counterpart is to be maintained.
The main message Minister Dini was able to convey to North Korea during his visit there was that economic and political isolation is not and cannot be a viable proposition in today's global environment. That message was conveyed strongly and clearly and was listened to with great attention.
The negotiations that will take place in Pyongyang next month will be a breakthrough. Although it would be too optimistic to think that we are out of the tunnel, we may be seeing a first sign of light at the end of this long tunnel.
Hopefully a negotiating process, however long and difficult, will be initiated. The protagonists can only be the two Korean states. But the international community can play an important supporting role as it did in promoting the take-off of dialogue.
One of the main challenges will be to convince North Koreans that they are not threatened.
The perception of hostility and encirclement emerged as the most powerful preoccupation to the North Koreans during Minister Dini's meetings in Pyongyang. Therefore, one of the main challenges will be to enhance economic, political and security confidence.
Confidence requires an effort by both sides. The North must trust the South and vice versa. Europe has had a long experience in such confidence building. The European experience has been brought to the attention of both Korean sides: Confidence-building measures, of both a military and a civilian nature, have been used in Europe to overcome the Cold War and can in principle be applied to Korea.
There are other possibilities. The transition process experienced by China and Vietnam might be seen by North Korea as a suitable term of reference. Taking the first steps in establishing a market economy while maintaining a socialist-inspired political system might be an equally viable option for the North.
However, the prerequisite to any possible progress will lie with the two leaders' ability to establish a climate of mutual trust. If that climate can be achieved and an ensuing dialogue can be sustained in the future, then both sides will indeed be justified in proclaiming the summit a success.