Interview with Dr Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, political advisor at the European Parliament, by Human Rights Lawyers Network Without Frontiers (USA)

Q.: The world has been witnessing a dramatic escalation of tension on the Korean Peninsula. In violation and disregard of UN Security Council resolutions, the North Korean regime has continued its trajectory towards improving its nuclear capabilities. Since 2006, it has conducted six nuclear tests and developed its ballistic missile technologies, threatening regional and global peace. What is the EU’s role in the international response to such provocations?

The EU’s policy of critical engagement towards North Korea aims at decreasing tensions on the Peninsula, through the pursuit of political dialogue, human rights and humanitarian assistance while upholding the international non-proliferation regime.

When assessing the EU’s policy vis-a-vis North Korea it is important to consider the EU as a different kind of international actor, with a unique institutional architecture and multi-layered governance. Notwithstanding this complexity, human rights promotion remains at the core of its normative identity, guiding its foreign policy. This implies that as a normative power, the EU has placed the pursuit of human rights, along with democracy and rule of law, at the centre of its relations with North Korea via diplomacy and engagement. This is the EU’s core aspiration and the driving force behind its engagement policy.

Q.: What are the implications of the EU’s inherent institutional complexities when it comes to engaging North Korea?

As a result of its inherent fragmentation, a wide range of tools and instruments need coordination with a great variety of voices. Thus, the European Parliament (EP) remains only one actor shaping the overall policies, along with the Council (1), the External Action Service (2) and the European Commission (3).

Most importantly, it is member states that ultimately shape external policies on a European level, which requires internal coordination and implies limitations to acting and speaking with one voice. Nevertheless, in spite of limitations, it needs to be stressed that the EU has used sanctions as another tool to promote its Common Foreign and Security Policy objectives. It has implemented restrictive measures imposed through UN Security Council Resolutions and has reinforced them through its own measures. It is through this angle that Europe’s role in addressing the crisis in North Korea should be assessed.

Q.: Focusing on the EU’s emphasis on human rights in its engagement policy, what are some of the tools EU institutions have developed to ensure that human rights remain an international priority?

EU institutions have elaborated a sophisticated tool box and different mechanisms to enable the EU to contribute to addressing human rights in international crises.

These include Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions – for example in July the Conclusions deplored the ‘ongoing and grave human rights abuses’ by the North Korean regime and stated its commitment ‘to continue working with partners to draw attention to these violations, to assure international accountability and to maintain pressure on DPRK to cease its human rights violations’.

The Annual Report on Democracy and Human Rights, as elaborated by the EEAS, as well as resolutions as tabled by the European Parliament have equally condemned state repression and called on the regime to abide by international human rights obligations. Conferences, seminars and debates in the Parliament are further tools to reinforce such calls.

Q.: How does the EU’s focus on human rights complement ongoing efforts of the international community focusing on denuclearization? Does it work?

The EU has been at the forefront of international efforts to keep human rights in North Korea high on the international agenda. This includes being a leading force behind recent resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly.

This focus therefore remains an indispensable element not only complementing international efforts, but should remain at the core of all future initiatives. In fact, the EU has clearly stated that human rights must be part of any future negotiations concerning North Korea, of equal importance with stressing the global non-proliferation and disarmament regime.

Thus, the EU’s autonomous restrictive measures target the DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile-related activities of North Korea. But at the same time, the EU has continued providing humanitarian assistance, mostly in the area of food security, to some of the most vulnerable groups in the country.

Unfortunately, the Human Rights Dialogue with Pyongyang was suspended in 2013. The last round of political dialogue was held in 2015, with no progress towards improvement in the human rights situation on the ground. Yet, the EU has not stopped voicing its concerns in this regard.

Q.: What role does the European Parliament play in these efforts?

As an advisor in the European Parliament, I have been following the worrying developments in the country. I have been involved in a range of activities that shape the EP’s approach, within the Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) and the Foreign Affairs Committees (AFET).

I would stress here that the EP remains the most vocal institution in the EU when it comes to speaking up against human rights violations in the world. It is at the same time the institution that provides a platform for civil society organizations to raise awareness and benefits from their expertise.

Q.: Can you mention some of these activities?

By partnering up with Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) in Brussels, for example, this year we presented two books on North Korea in the EP, one written by Bandi (pen name), an author living in North Korea whose manuscript was smuggled out in 2013 and published in over twenty languages, the only such work shedding light on everyday life under the totalitarian regime of the Kim dynasty. We also hosted Jieun Baek, the author of ‘North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground is Transforming a Closed Society’. Together with HRWF, we also nominated Bandi for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought 2017, awarded annually to a person or organization fighting against oppression and injustice. He got the support of 48 Members of the centre right European People’s Party (EPP) but he did not make it to the short list.

Q.: How do you assess the EU’s overall effectiveness in its engagement policy?  

There is a general sentiment that under the burden of its economic and political crises, Europe is becoming more introverted and less inclined to continue the pursuit of its global engagement. This has indeed raised questions about its global image as the champion of human rights, and its international relevance. Yet, when it comes to North Korea, the consensus among member states remains; diplomacy is the only way to be pursued when dealing with North Korea. There is equal willingness to support and transpose sectoral sanctions imposed by UN Security Council resolutions and adopt autonomous measures to further increase pressure.

Q.: Where do we go from here? What should the EU do to help reduce tension, while keeping human rights at the forefront?

First, the EU must continue to remain the voice of human rights in all international multilateral discussions and negotiations, in line with its own commitments.

Second, it must continue its humanitarian and food assistance on the ground to help the most vulnerable.

Third, it must remain the voice of moderation and judgement in an increasingly belligerent and destabilizing rhetoric coming from Pyongyang, but also sadly increasingly echoed by the Trump administration. This is most likely doing further damage to an already unpredictable and explosive standoff.

Fourth, the EU must not give up on dialogue with North Korea; instead, it must insist on a political solution to help decrease the tension and enable discussion. This is possible only by being the voice of moderation and reason that is currently lacking.

Fifth, the EU should enhance cooperation with other international actors, expanding dialogue channels. In particular, the EU should coordinate with China, as Pyongyang’s closest and only ally and biggest trading partner. Coordination is key. We should acknowledge Beijing’s recent constructive approach to support UNSC resolutions, suggesting that Beijing’s engagement of North Korea could be translating into commitment to UN sanctions. Only a unified approach and a coherent and sustainable international strategy, inspired by trust among those involved and interested in global peace, can help find a peaceful diplomatic solution. The EU should lead these efforts.


(1) The Council of the European Union is the EU institution that defines the general political direction and priorities of the European Union. It consists of the heads of state or government of the member states, together with its President and the President of the Commission.

(2) The European External Action Service (EEAS) is the European Union’s diplomatic service. It helps the EU’s foreign affairs chief – the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – carry out the Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy.

(3) The European Commission is the executive of the European Union.

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