EU Takes Tough Line on North Korea Amid Differing Views Within Bloc

By Laurence NormanFeaturesDow Jones Newswires

European Union foreign ministers swung largely behind Washington's stance on North Korea on Monday, threatening further sanctions and pressing China to push Kim Jong Un's regime to abandon its nuclear work.

Yet behind Monday's joint stance, European governments are staking out conflicting positions on one of the world's most volatile flashpoints.

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Despite recent EU overtures urging dialogue on the North Korean crisis, the ministers called on Pyongyang to move toward reducing its nuclear program as a precondition for broader international talks, even as South Korea's new left-leaning president pushed military-to-military contacts with the north to ease tensions.

EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini, with the backing of Sweden, Ireland and others, has been looking at how the EU could promote discussions to help avert conflict over North Korea. They argue that pressure alone is insufficient to stop Pyongyang's nuclear work.

EU officials say Brussels may be considered a relatively neutral party by all sides, as 26 of its member states have formal diplomatic relations with Pyongyang and seven maintain embassies there. The EU has no formal role in the United Nations-backed six-party talks, which are charged with ending the nuclear standoff.

Others EU countries, including large members such as Britain, France and Germany, are wary of allowing North Korea to use talks to divide the international community. They believe stepped-up pressure on Pyongyang and China, at least for now, is the best route back to serious discussions.

Monday's EU talks were held amid mounting tensions over North Korea's nuclear program, following a string of missile tests in recent months that showed new capabilities. These included a test earlier this month of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could potentially reach parts of the U.S.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday offered formal talks with Mr. Kim's regime. U.S. President Donald Trump meanwhile has upped pressure on Beijing and Pyongyang, threatening some "pretty severe things" in response to the Kim regime's missile tests. U.S. officials have said a military solution isn't off the table.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the EU had reached out to senior South Korean and Chinese officials, saying it was willing to play some kind of broker role if it could help. Officials have insisted, however, they would only act at South Korea's request.

"We will discuss with ministers what more we can do to facilitate a solution that, in our view, cannot be but a diplomatic and political one, " Ms. Mogherini said ahead of Monday's discussions.

Speaking after the meeting, however, U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said there were "some tough words" in Monday's discussions on North Korea, with London among those making clear this wasn't the time for diplomatic outreach.

"There are some people who think we should engage early with Pyongyang. We absolutely disagree on that," he said. "They've got to make a serious move towards denuclearizing their country before it is right for us to begin a proper dialogue."

Monday's ministerial statement referred to possible new EU "restrictive measures" including efforts to limit Pyongyang's access to hard currency. The foreign ministers also said North Korea should "make credible progress on its obligations to denuclearize" as a condition for talks on a "peaceful solution."

The ministers alluded to widespread concerns that Russia and China have done too little to cut off trade with Pyongyang, urging "support for the full implementation of U.N. sanctions by all countries." The Trump administration is considering fresh sanctions on Chinese companies engaged in such business. Beijing has said it fully complies with restrictive measures.

"Yes, more sanctions," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told reporters on Monday, adding however that that wouldn't be enough. "We have to put pressure on China," he said. "Ninety percent of the economy of North Korea depends on China."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 17, 2017 12:10 ET (16:10 GMT)