Keep the hardline EU in mind
The sky over Brussels, the capital city of the European Union, is always gloomy in November. A magnificent 18-story building shaped like an “X” is located on the eastern side of Rue de la Loi in the city’s center. The building, called the Berlaymont, is the headquarters of the European Commission. It is named after the former convent that used to be there and all of the EU’s leaders, including the president of the European Commission and the president of the European Council, work in the building, which is why the ultramodern architecture is known as a symbol of the EU.
Besides being a symbol of the EU, the building’s history shows the bare face of European integration. The building was completed in 1967, when toxic asbestos was still used as a construction material. The Berlaymont was not an exception, so the EU eventually decided to carry out major remodeling. The project began in 1991.
If it were Korea, two to three years would probably be long enough, but the project was not completed until 2004 due to budget issues, frequent design changes and differences in opinions among member countries. The completion took 13 years, five years longer than the building’s original construction period of eight years. It was an example of the slow administrative operation of the EU.
A 10 minute walk to the southwest from the building shows another symbol of the EU, the European Parliament. The main chamber, where 751 lawmakers from 28 member countries work, is located at the center of the building. Interpreters’ booths take up most of the chamber’s upper story, because the lawmakers’ remarks need to be translated into 24 languages. Besides the discussions, most of the documents are also published in 24 languages. This also shows how slow and complex the operation of the EU is.
One EU official, however, said their method has its strengths. “Because the discussion takes a long time between the 28 member countries and the many people whose interests are involved, an agreement is hard to reach, but it is pushed forward consistently once a decision is made,” he said. He also said a guideline is made for any pending issue and it is followed in order to silence complaints.
The draft resolution on North Korea’s human rights, led by the EU and passed by the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly on Nov. 18, is one example. The resolution is sure to be approved at next month’s General Assembly. The next step will be the Security Council’s deliberation of the resolution’s recommendation that the North’s leaders, including Kim Jong-un, would be referred to the International Criminal Court.
In North Korea, the supreme leader is worshiped as a god and it will be a humiliation the North cannot ignore. It is no wonder the North Korean people will gather in protests around the country, including an event in Pyongyang attended by 100,000. And the situation will be an important factor in the South’s efforts to improve its relations with the North.
Kang Sok-ju, the Workers’ Party’s secretary in charge of international affairs and the country’s top diplomat, visited Brussels in September because of the draft resolution. He tried to persuade the EU to remove the wordings on the referral to the ICC. At the time, he made two offers. He proposed that the human rights dialogue between the North and the EU, suspended since 2003, be resumed. To promote human rights, the EU has held dialogues with countries that had poor rights records. The North also proposed that it will invite EU Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis.
And yet, the EU didn’t budge. It pushed forward the unprecedentedly strong draft.
Often, a country gives up on one thing for another crucial cause. It is strategic flexibility. For nuclear negotiations, the human rights issues could wait for a while. In fact, President Park Geun-hye refrained from addressing the rights issue, one of her favorite topics, at the Unification Preparatory Committee meeting on Oct. 13. She made the decision in order to save the possibility of the high-ranking inter-Korean talks that the North threatened to cancel. It was a stark comparison from her remarks two weeks ago that the South must not act passively in addressing human rights issues for fear of the North’s retaliation.
The EU, however, is completely the opposite. Strategic flexibility is something that cannot be factored in, because of the peculiar nature of the organization. Differently from other countries, where power is focused at the center, the EU’s decision-making power is dispersed horizontally. Each arm of the EU has strong independence and authority.
The European Commission, the executive body that oversees the 28 member countries, has 28,000 workers. The Korean central government alone has 90,000 workers excluding education and police staffers, so the commission is a relatively smaller organization. Because the number is small, each individual worker has more authority.
And that will apply to the issue of the North’s human rights. The department inside the EU that handles the topic will likely intensify its efforts unless the rights condition in the North improves. Until now, the EU’s voice was insignificant in the North Korea issue, but it will likely address the issue routinely and more strongly, taking into account its organizational characteristics. That is why the EU must be factored into the equation of North Korea affairs from now on.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 28, Page 28
The author is a senior writer of international affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Nam Jeong-ho