The Next Conflict: North Korea — For Americans and Europeans Alike

A Young Professional Summit Participant Perspective on GMF’s Brussels Forum

By: Tereza Novotná, FNRS Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Institute for European Studies, Université libre de Bruxelles; Senior Associate Research Fellow at EUROPEUM

When a European thinks about where the next conflict might be coming from (which was a session on the final day of GMF’s Brussels Forum 2017), Russia is perhaps the first country that springs to mind (which was indeed debated in the second half of the same session). A European would also potentially come up with the Western Balkans and various countries in the Middle East and Africa. Yet what was most revealing for me, as well as the others in the audience, at this year’s GMF’s Brussels Forum, the next conflict is likely to come from the country that has been often ridiculed as well as feared: North Korea. In fact, the DPRK was allegedly mentioned as the biggest threat to U.S. national security by President Obama during his face-to-face meeting with President-elect Donald Trump.

Watch the full session above.

Although the European media has been reporting about North Korea’s dramatically accelerated nuclear program and missile tests with the last (albeit failed) launch a day just before the start of this conference, and about rather quirky topics, such as the mysterious murder of Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of the North Korean leader, worries about the DPRK do not usually keep Europeans up at night. Yet as one of the two panelists, Japan’s Ambassador Masafumi Ishii, rightly pointed out, if Kim Jong Un develops nuclear weapons reaching California, the entire European continent will be covered within their range.

Although currently revising the U.S.’s North Korea policy, the Trump Administration appears to be leaning towards a hardline approach of severe sanctions and continued deployment of the THAAD anti-missile shield in South Korea as both Secretary Mattis and Tillerson confirmed during their visits. On the other hand, Candidate Trump once quipped that he would sit down with Kim Jung Un to discuss the situation over a hamburger. What’s the best approach then?

The other speaker, Ambassador Wendy Sherman, who was in charge of negotiations with North Korea under Bill Clinton, argued that we have already tried everything: from sanctions through freezes and military exercises up to a dialogue. She nevertheless suggested that we haven’t tried to employ all these tools at the same time, rather than one after another, which is potentially a high-risk approach but one that actually led to the Iran nuclear deal under President Obama.

As a native of the Czech Republic, a country that lived through a dictatorship for forty years, I would add another point: it was not only Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars that put down the communist regimes across the Soviet bloc but dissatisfaction of the local populations and their desires for liberty and prosperity, their wishes to listen freely to the Western rock music and to buy American jeans. The impetus for a change came from within these states that eventually imploded. No matter how difficult this might be, as both speakers stressed, we must therefore try to bring as much information and allow as much access as possible to the outside world for the ordinary North Koreans.

Although the EU has so far followed the United States’ tough stance in imposing sanctions and, most recently, cutting off the DPRK banks from the SWIFT money-transfer system, in my view, the EU could play a larger role in helping open up the North Korean system through using its assets on the ground, such as European diplomatic missions, and people-to-people contacts. As the theme of the Forum highlighted, it is necessary to end our complacency. If we do not do so, it might be too late, particularly for those of us from younger generations who gathered at GMF’s Young Professional Summit: we need to embark on the era of action otherwise we may indeed face the next, potentially nuclear, conflict.

For more on GMF’s Brussels Forum, check out BrusselsForum.org for all of the session videos, transcripts, blog posts, and more.

The ideas expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.

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