On Monday, 15 of October, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that France would be willing to help North Korea begin the process of denuclearization. However, France specified the need to first witness a genuine desire and more concrete commitments from Pyongyang towards achieving the very goal of denuclearization.
President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, is hoping that France will encourage other members of the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN) to drop their economic sanctions on North Korea as an incentive to their intention to give up nuclear programs, thus increasing the likelihood of a full commitment from the communist state. Talks of North Korea’s denuclearization first began in June, when Kim Jong-un met at a summit with United States President Donald Trump; no definitive agreement was however reached, as the North Korean leader refused to give an account of the country’s nuclear weapons and facilities. If the French initiative proves to be successful- and provided the North Korean human rights record also show signs of improvement- it is a real possibility that members of the EU and UN will be willing to drop their sanctions; this would potentially lead to an improved welfare state of those living in the country.
While President Moon is encouraging the easing of sanctions on North Korea, most of the world is waiting for North Korea to show more definitive signs of commitment to reform and nuclear dismantlement before taking action. Moon Chung-in, professor at Yonsei University in Seoul and special advisor of President Moon on foreign policy, diplomacy and national security in South Korea, has recently spoken on behalf of the South Korean government to Le Monde. He explained that as a result of North Korea’s “constructive attitude,” countries should in fact consider easing sanctions in the meantime. However, according to French news source Orange Actu, President Macron stated that “at this stage, it is good to keep the leverage to ensure there are changes.” American scholars such as University of Chicago professor Bruce Cumings, scholar of authority in respect of matters regarding North Korea, believe that the country has made progress, pointing out to Voice of America that they have not carried out missile or nuclear bomb tests in almost a year. Others, such as Siegfried S. Hecker, professor emeritus at Stanford University, believe that attempting to help it denuclearize is a “dead end,” as the New York Times reports.
The denuclearization of North Korea, especially with the backing of France, who is a permanent member of the UN security council and an established nuclear state under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), could lead to significant changes in global dynamics. France is acting cautiously, and arguably also rightfully, in holding off on easing sanctions and providing assistance until North Korea makes a more concrete commitment to denuclearization and improving human rights, since the easing of sanctions may deter North Korean leadership from following through on the terms they have agreed on. There is certainly reason for caution on the rest of the world’s part, as Kim Jong-un has refused inspections of their facilities back in May, despite promises to allow it. This lack of reliability makes it very difficult to predict North Korea’s next move, and while President Moon may be correct in claiming that North Korea should be given reassurance that they are making the right decision, this is not necessarily worth the risk of losing the upper hand in the situation.
North Korea has been isolated for much of its history with ebbs and flows. The isolation eased up in part in the 1990s, but closed off again after the United States President at the time, George W. Bush, included North Korea in the “axis of evil” in 2002, and withdrew from the NPT about a year later. While it was claimed that at the time of withdrawal North Korea did not have any intentions of developing nuclear weapons, development commenced straightaway as inspections of nuclear facilities were banned. Due to missile and nuclear warhead tests as well as a poor human rights record, the UN has been imposing sanctions on the country since 2016. France is one of only two countries in the European Union (Estonia being the other) to not have a record of diplomatic relations with North Korea.
If North Korea makes a more firm commitment to denuclearization and improving human rights within the country, this could result in the country’s isolation lessening considerably. Having one less actor with their hands aimed at the big red button will likely open up more opportunities for peaceful resolution of conflicts, avoiding the threat of escalation. The choice of France to extend a friendly, yet cautious hand is providing an important precedent for improving world relations with a country that has long been secluded; provided that North Korea cooperates accordingly, this could eventually result in the removal of the UN-imposed sanctions. This could be the first step in establishing diplomatic relations between France and North Korea and facilitate the achievement of a more peaceful future.