Europe wary of Pyongyang

By March 12, 2007Article, Atlantic Eye

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia, March 12 (UPI, The Washington Post) — On the mast of the Foreign Ministry, the Global Panel and Prague Society flags waved grandly alongside the flag of the Slovak Republic. With nearly two dozen participants from 15 countries, the North Korea Initiative (NKI)’s 4th meeting was hosted by Foreign Minister Jan Kubis and State Secretary Diana Strofova as tensions mount worldwide over Pyongyang.

“The timing was impeccable,” retired NATO General Dieter Stockmann had whispered to me. As the NKI met in Bratislava, U.S. Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill met with his North Korean counterpart in New York.

Stoeckmann had hosted Hill at a closed briefing in Brussels in June 2006, led by Gernot von Grawert-May it was attended by twenty ambassadors. “Hill was clear, open and informative,” said Grawert at the off-the-record meeting.

On that morning, just outside the state secretary’s board room, ambassador Paul Beijer, Sweden’s special advisor on Korean peninsula issues, huddled with Jens-Hald Madsen, Vice-Chairman of Denmark’s Parliamentary Defense Committee. Madsen, Global Panel’s Nordic chairman, had led a delegation to Pyongyang last year. Beijer was Swedish ambassador to North Korea from 2001-2005.

Madsen was deeply and disturbingly moved by what he had seen. We had met one week earlier in Copenhagen, after my return from Seoul and Tokyo. “The DPRK must be engaged. We must help their people. But, I am quite worried about their nuclear weapons. How do we get clarity?” he had said to me in the Folketing (Danish parliament). “This process is virtually impossible to monitor.”

I turned to greet Caroline Chretien, now Canada’s Director for Japan and Korea — formerly deputy protocol chief under Prime Minister Chretien. The U.S. ambassador to Slovakia Rodolphe “Skip” Vallee joined later, and stayed much longer than intended. He is proof that some political appointees are good and strong representatives for the United States. Vallee received compliments from ranking officials during the day — who were none too enamored with his predecessor.

Eduard Kukan, Slovak Foreign Minister from 1998-2006 and still in parliament, was catching up with businessman and former Czech Cabinet minister Pavel Bratinka. Ambassador Gheorghe Tinca, Romania’s first post-communist civilian defense minister, approached the two of them. Their conversation not only focused on North Korea but also on Global Panel’s upcoming Black Sea Initiative (BSI) — which will seek strategies on energy and security relating to Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and the Ukraine. It will be chaired by Minister Tinca and commence May 10 in Bucharest.

Minister Hassan Abouyoub, chief foreign policy advisor to King Mohammed VI of Morocco, could be seen in deep conversation with Seffi Bodansky, senior advisor to the U.S. Congressional task force on terrorism and unconventional warfare. They are old friends. Ambassador Ryszard Schnepf, Poland’s special advisor for global security, joined in as well.

I stood behind them, listening ever so carefully. I smiled, “It’s not going on-the-record, gents.” They grimaced and chuckled as they continued with juicy tidbits — all of which they shared in closed session. What I can write is that Morocco is very interested in resuming the role it played as a “crisis manager and mediator” under King Hassan II in the 70s and 80s. Abouyoub will host a delegation in Rabat and Tangier in two weeks to develop a strategy for cooperation.

State Secretary Strofova arrived to represent the Slovak government. She was in her mid-twenties when elected to parliament some eight years ago. She was young when she joined the government as state secretary last year. I had met her in Bratislava, and Foreign Minister Kubis while he visited Berlin, to propose the next NKI meeting. The secretary has grown into her role remarkably in a short period of time. She wears her responsibility well. She spoke at length with South Korea’s Haksoon Paik. Later that day Paik would brief Pavol Paska, President of the Slovak National Assembly, who had hosted parts of the NKI.

If there was a consensus at the 4th North Korea Initiative, it is that engaging the DPRK is the right approach; and growing Global Panel’s E500million North Korea Investment Fund (NKIF) is a good strategy. To understand the size of the fund, it would provide enough rice for every family in the DPRK for one year.

That is not the purpose of the fund; the NKIF seeks private investors for entrepreneurial ventures, to provide micro loans, for knowledge transfer, health care, to support building, energy and infrastructural projects. The fund will be discussed further in Seoul May 16-18, 2007, with private sector managers, including Hyundai-Asan. The fund will be supported by those who understand a return of investment will come much later — as it did in Central and Eastern Europe.

Not all agree with aspects of the NKI approach — certainly not all in Bratislava agreed. There were questions about whether engaging the DPRK now rewards bad behavior. There was the question of how reliable the monitoring can be in a system that is about as closed as any on earth. Growing the NKI Investment Fund is a neutral and practical economic step to approach North Korea. Only when the fund is put into use will mechanisms have to be defined.

And, we are not naive.

As one ranking official in Bratislava warned, “it will take a biblical size miracle for North Korea to get rid of its strategic weapons.”

And so it is.

(This is the first of a two part series on the North Korea Initiative)

(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of Global Panel and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist based in Berlin and Prague, he sits on the National Advisory Board of the US Democratic Party where he is a vice-chair of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council. )