Editor's Note

Antoine Bondaz, the Director of Korea Program on Security and Diplomacy at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS), examines the history of the relationship between the European Union (EU) Member States and North Korea since the 1990s. The article delves into how Europe has engaged with North Korea, highlighting the role of platforms like the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) and various capacity building and development aid programs led by EU’s non-governmental organizations. In doing so, Bondaz underscores the significant impact European nations have had in fostering trade, facilitating dialogue, and providing crucial humanitarian aid on both bilateral and multilateral fronts.

While the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile crisis persists in a deadlock, and the reopening of North Korea sparks renewed discussions regarding the potential role of the European Union and its Member States on the peninsula, it is imperative to delve into the history of cooperation between Europe and the country since its establishment in 1948.


With this objective in mind, we present two concise briefs. The first predominantly delves into the events of the 1990s and early 2000s, a post-Cold War era characterized by North Korea's increased international engagement. The second shifts focus to the period from North Korea's inaugural nuclear test in 2006 through to the onset of the pandemic in 2020.


Often, analyses of the relationship between Europe and North Korea begin in the 1990s, focusing primarily on humanitarian aid provided to the country from 1995 onward. However, these analyses offer a limited perspective. The roots of this relationship run deeper and are more diverse, serving as a cornerstone for the blossoming of ties in the early 2000s.


While the European Union officially established diplomatic relations with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in May 2001, certain Member States have had official interactions with the DPRK since its inception in 1948. These diplomatic ties were forged in three waves: in the late 1940s for Eastern European countries within the Communist bloc, in the early 1970s for so-called Scandinavian neutral countries as well as Austria and Portugal, and in the early 2000s for Western European nations. Presently, only France and Estonia have not established diplomatic relations with the DPRK. Out of the 24 embassies in Pyongyang prior to the pandemic-related closures, 6 belonged to European Union member states (Germany, Bulgaria, Poland, Czech Republic, Romania, and Sweden).


Although relations between Europe and North Korea benefit from a lack of a conflict-laden past such as colonialism, the Korean War marked the first significant involvement of some European states on the peninsula, either directly or indirectly. Six Western European countries dispatched troops to support the Republic of Korea (in descending order of troop numbers: the United Kingdom, Greece, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), while others provided medical assistance to either the United Nations command (Denmark, Italy, Norway, and Sweden) or the DPRK (Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania). After the armistice was signed in 1953, certain Eastern European nations offered direct support for reconstruction, most notably East Germany, whose aid played a pivotal role in rebuilding the completely devastated town of Hamhung, the provincial capital of South Hamgyong, and the epicenter of the DPRK's chemical industry.


In the ensuing decades, despite the absence of diplomatic relations between the DPRK and Western European countries, North Korean trade missions, faced with limitations in purchasing specific equipment from the Soviet Union and other communist states, actively procured heavy industrial machinery and entire factories in Western Europe through long-term credit agreements. Trade relations between Europe and the DPRK were officially established in the 1960s. Pyongyang set up a trade office in France in 1968, later evolving into a general delegation of the DPRK in 1984. The Paris-Pyongyang Friendship Association between France and North Korea (AAFC) was established in 1969 to facilitate various interactions and exchanges, including economic endeavors.


In the 1980s, concrete cooperation projects were initiated, particularly in the field of architecture. One notable example is the Yanggakdo Hotel, constructed with French investment and by a French civil engineering company. However, relations between Europe and the DPRK experienced a downturn afterward. At the close of 1974, North Korea defaulted on its debts, primarily to Japanese, French, and British banks and companies. It wasn't until the 1990s that economic cooperation truly flourished, expanding beyond select European countries.



A Clear Commitment to Initiating Political Dialogue


Political engagement with North Korea marked a significant shift in the late 1990s. In December 1998, amid growing international engagement in the Korean peninsula, the European Commission advocated for a proactive approach of "actively involving North Korea in the global community." This led to the organization of the inaugural round of political discussions with North Korea (1st EU-DPRK political dialogue), followed by an ad hoc delegation from the European Parliament (1st ad hoc delegation from the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) to the DPRK). Subsequent meetings became more frequent and formalized, including the 2nd EU-DPRK political dialogue in November 1999, 2nd ad hoc AFET delegation to the DPRK in October 2000, 3rd EU-DPRK political dialogue in November 2000, and the first EU-North Korea dialogue on human rights in June 2001.


Following the first inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang and the adoption of the "Seoul Declaration for Peace on the Korean Peninsula" at the conclusion of the third Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in June 2000, the European Union opted for a more coordinated approach. In May 2001, during the Swedish Presidency of the European Union, a high-level delegation led by Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson visited Pyongyang. This visit resulted in the establishment of diplomatic relations and the formulation of the first and only Country Strategy Paper on North Korea in 2001. During this period, most Western European states took the step to establish diplomatic relations, with Italy leading the way in January 2000, becoming the first G7 country to do so.


The primary objective was to "support the European Community's endeavors towards reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula, particularly in the realms of economic reform and addressing the critical food and health challenges in the DPRK" (Rüdiger 2007). The 2001 European strategy underscored three core goals: fostering sustainable economic and social development, integrating North Korea into the global economy, and combating poverty through a holistic approach that encompasses political, economic, social, and environmental dimensions of development (European Commission 2001).


Despite the nuclear crisis in 2003, when North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a delegation of European diplomats visited Pyongyang in December 2003 and emphasized that a resolution of the nuclear issue would present an opportunity to bolster training and economic exchanges between the European Union and the DPRK. At the time, cooperation between Europe and North Korea spanned four distinct yet complementary areas: trade, capacity building, energy assistance, and humanitarian aid.



An Important Trading Partner


The collapse of the USSR and the subsequent decline in trade between Moscow and Pyongyang, which had accounted for nearly half of the DPRK's total trade in the mid-1980s, saw Europe's share of North Korea's foreign trade surge. Bilateral trade surpassed the $300 million mark in 1997 and 1998 (Kim 2002). While North Korea constituted only 0.015% of the European Union's trade in 2000, trade with the EU represented 13.7% of the DPRK's total trade.


In 2000, Germany emerged as North Korea's foremost European trading partner, surpassing France, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands (Lee 2003). By 2001, the EU (15 Member States) ranked as the DPRK's third-largest trading partner, trailing behind China and Japan. While trade with the DPRK constituted a minimal portion of the European Union's overall trade, North Korean exports to the EU played a crucial role in preventing a complete collapse of the North Korean economy. This indirect leverage supported the country's modernization and social development efforts.


Several European countries entered into economic agreements with North Korea, including Denmark (Investment Assurance Agreement), Sweden (Trade Agreement), Germany (Air Transportation Agreement and Future Transaction Agreement), and Italy (Investment Assurance Agreement). The economic reforms announced by Pyongyang in 2002 were welcomed by European partners, who viewed them as a highly positive step forward for bilateral trade.



A Partner in Building Capacity


Several European countries have played a pivotal role in spearheading capacity-building programs aimed at bolstering the economic capabilities of North Korea, with the hope of catalyzing reforms within its economic system. According to an extensive study by the Korea Development Institute, from 1997 to 2006, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, and even the UK facilitated knowledge-based economic partnership (KP) programs. These initiatives encompassed a spectrum of activities, ranging from book exchanges to industrial visits, from organizing training programs to establishing research institutes (Park and Jung 2007). Approximately twenty programs were launched, primarily driven by a handful of key players, including the Swedish government, German political foundations (Friedrich Naumann Foundation and Hanns Seidel Foundation), Swiss non-governmental and non-profit organizations (Centre for Applied Studies in International Negotiations), and Italian organizations (Landau Network-Sansandro Volta Foundation).


The case of Sweden stands as the most emblematic. In the late 1990s, North Korea approached Sweden to provide training for its officials and experts (Andersson and Bae 2015). In 2001, the European Institute for Japanese Studies (EIJS) at the Stockholm School of Economics initiated a pilot program centered on "Market Economy and International Trade Training for the DPRK." Professors of economics from Kim Il-sung University were invited to Sweden for discussions with Swedish government officials, members of parliament, and representatives from private companies such as Ericsson and ABB (Park and Jung 2007). The program was developed between 2002 and 2009, featuring two-week workshops for North Korean policy planners and academics in Vietnam.


The European Union has also provided funding for a number of events, including the DPRK-EU Economic Modernisation Workshops held in August 2004, October 2005, and October 2007. These workshops involved the participation of members of the European Parliament and were conducted in collaboration with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. They facilitated dialogues between economic development experts and consultants, particularly from Eastern Europe, and their North Korean counterparts on a wide array of topics, including agriculture, light industry (with a focus on textiles), finance, and information technology.



A Partner Supporting International Initiatives


The European Union, represented by the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC), has joined the executive board of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) to contribute to the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue. KEDO was established in the wake of the 1994 Geneva framework agreement, wherein North Korea committed to freezing its nuclear program in exchange for the international community's provision of two 1,000-megawatt light water reactors and an annual shipment of 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil. The construction of the light water reactors was financed by South Korea (58% of the total KEDO budget) and Japan (20%). The United States (16%) and the European Union (5%) contributed to the supply of heavy fuel oil (Ko 2008).


While European aid constituted slightly over 5% of the total, when including the financial contributions of Member States, it played a crucial role in globalizing KEDO's efforts. This was instrumental in bolstering the initiative's credibility and persuading North Korea to uphold its commitments. Notably, the EAEC made an initial contribution of nearly 4 million dollars in July 1996. It's worth mentioning that many European Union Member States contributed to KEDO's financing prior to the European Union's involvement. In 1995, the United Kingdom, Finland, and the Netherlands, and again in 1996, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Norway, and Switzerland made unilateral contributions to KEDO. Italy emerged as the largest European contributor before Germany (KEDO 2005).



A Vital Partner in Assisting the Population


Europeans played a pivotal role in delivering substantial humanitarian aid precisely when the North Korean population needed it most, during the mid-1990s. Starting from 1995, the European Union extended humanitarian aid, with a particular focus on providing essential food assistance to North Korea. This effort reached its zenith in 1997, during the severe famine. At this critical juncture, North Korea received nearly 5% of the total humanitarian aid disbursed by Brussels for international relief efforts, a stark contrast to the subsequent years where the allocation was less than 1% (Rüdiger 2002).


Between 1997 and 2000, the Commission allocated a total of €168 million through three key channels: bilateral aid, predominantly through the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO, later rebranded as the Directorate-General for Civil Protection and European Humanitarian Aid Operations) (amounting to €106.7 million), funding from the World Food Programme (€50 million, encompassing €12 million worth of food aid products distributed by European NGOs), and direct funding from seven European NGOs (€11 million). These NGOs included Cesvi, Concern, Children's Aid Direct, Action Contre La Faim, German Agro-action, Médecins Sans Frontières, and Triangle Génération Humanitaire (ReliefWeb 2001). Following this initial phase of food assistance, the focus shifted towards structural food aid, with a particular emphasis on providing resources and technical support to enhance agricultural production across various sectors, including the provision of fertilizers.


However, recognizing the full scope of Europe's contribution requires acknowledging that EU aid is just one facet. Many Member States also extended bilateral aid. When considering both joint aid efforts and contributions from Member States, the EU's share (55%) logically surpasses that of individual countries like Germany (12%), Sweden (12%), and Denmark (10%) (European Commission 2001). This collective European endeavor between 1995 and 2006 has sustained its commitment to providing aid to the DPRK at both bilateral and multilateral levels.


※ This article was co-published by the FRS and Global NK.





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Antoine Bondaz is the Director of the Korea Program on Security and Diplomacy at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS).



Typeset by: Jisoo Park, Research Associate
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