How North Korea’s neighbours view the nuclear threat


At the end of June, ECFR conducted a week-long discussion round between a group of Europeans and Asians in Tokyo under the title, How do Asians see their future? Not unexpectedly, on most issues different participants had very different answers to the question. However, the rise and future of China loomed large over the discussions.

Participants responded to a poll on the likelihood of conflicts in Asia, and the results showed that people were concerned about the potential for war between China and Vietnam and between China and Japan. But the greatest risk to Asia, according to Asian participants in the discussion, is North Korea. They feared that provocation could be followed by melt-down, which would lead to an intervention by China. Europeans placed North Korea as the second greatest risk to Asia.

The idea that North Korea is one of the greatest risks to Asian security is not new. Neither are questions about ways to support gradual change in North Korea and ways to avoid a sudden collapse. Debates among South Koreans, other Asians, and Europeans centred on ways to advance South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s Trustpolitik, as well as on lessons that could be drawn from Germany’s unification. However, the discussions made it clear that Asians and Europeans lack new ideas to deal with the North Korean threat. The same key factor recurred in all discussions on initiatives to build confidence and trust between North Korea and South Korea – to create a “Trustpolitik 2.0”. That key element was China.

One Korean participant noted that Beijing might seem to be in favour of the status quo on the Korean Peninsula, rather than showing support for conflict resolution. Other participants suggested calling on China to be more articulate and forthcoming towards Pyongyang on denuclearisation and a peace dialogue. Europeans took a modest but realistic line: if Koreans can learn anything from Europe, and specifically from German unification, it should be to expect the unexpected. Europeans too could learn a lesson: whether the Korean peninsula faces chaos, unification, or the continuance of the status quo, there is still a lot of room for European engagement. As one European participant suggested, Europe should show Asia what it can do. For example, European leaders could help to strengthen trust and institution-building by carrying out more regular meetings and visits with South and North Korean leaders.


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