She’s mentioned it too many times now for it to be an accident. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, says she can and wants to play a role in the extremely volatile situation that is North Korea.
“We will involve ourselves where there are such conflicts, to solve them, and wherever possible – in the case of North Korea there is no other option – through diplomatic efforts,” she said Monday. “This is our call sign. We want to solve problems through diplomacy, as we are doing in Ukraine and are prepared to do in North Korea.”
Can she really be effective? Some observers in the United States dismissed the matter when she first brought it up in an interview last week. The New York Times suggested it was an effort to enhance her global status a few weeks ahead of national elections on September 24.
There certainly may be some truth to that. Ms. Merkel’s latest comments were at a campaign event in Freiburg, and there’s no question that she has gained in the polls this past year in part because Germans see her as a steady and important leader in a rather uncertain and volatile global world. The more she can raise that stature, the better her Christian Democrats might do on Sunday.
But in Berlin, officials genuinely believe Germany might have something to offer in the North Korea crisis. It starts with the fact that Germany – unlike the United States – has an embassy in the North Korean capital Pyongyang and North Korea has one in Berlin, a legacy Germany inherited from the former communist East Germany.
“Anyone who is able to credibly establish a channel of reliable communication with Kim Jong-un is potentially well-suited to be a mediator.”
“Anyone who is able to credibly establish a channel of reliable communication with Kim Jong-un is potentially well-suited to be a mediator,” said Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. While the US has suggested it is willing to speak directly with North Korea on its own, “where both sides need help is the back-and-forth necessary to agree on a common agenda, especially since both sides’ ideas on this topic continue to be diametrically opposed,” he added.
“While the U.S. first instinct on diplomacy with North Korea will be to reach out directly, if the North Koreans were to decide that they prefer an indirect dialogue via Germany, I see no reason why the U.S. would reject it,” Mr. Snyder said, adding that Switzerland, where North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un went to school, could also play such a role.
With North Korea challenging the West by testing nuclear weapons, the Germans have been looking to make use of their connections. Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister, has called for direct talks between the North Korean regime and the US, Russia and China. Ms. Merkel has repeatedly said Europe and Germany should also be involved, along the lines of the nuclear deal that was brokered with Iran.
“We have experience in how to organize peaceful deterrence,” said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International Security Affairs in Berlin and an advisor to the government on foreign policy matters. Indeed, Berlin was the site of talks between the US and North Korea a decade ago, while South Korean leaders have twice used Berlin as a launch pad for speeches designed to kick-start talks with the north.
When it comes to the nuclear talks, however, Europe has so far been on the outside looking in: Even before the current standoff, formal talks with North Korea had included the three major powers plus Japan and South Korea, but excluded Europe. That seems to be something Ms. Merkel is trying to change. In the run up to a crucial UN Security Council vote on sanctions earlier this month, the German chancellor was working the phones with U.S. President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Together with the fact that Germany has diplomatic ties with North Korea, Ms. Merkel has taken a more independent line with the United States and the Trump administration over the past year. That arguably gives it some credibility as a mediator in talks that would involve Russia and China, but means it may struggle to get past the United States and into the door.
Indeed Ms. Merkel’s remarks Monday had echoes of her predecessor Gerhard Schröder’s opposition to the Iraq war in 2004. Though she has supported toughening sanctions against North Korea, Ms. Merkel has used every opportunity in the past few weeks to stress that military confrontation is no solution. In an interview with Handelsblatt, she even suggested Germany would “not automatically” support the United States if it came to war.
Germany’s involvement also likely comes with a dose of realism for the United States that it may not be interested in hearing. “We have to start by living with the fact that North Korea is a nuclear power,” said Mr. Perthes of Berlin’s SWP.
While the US has threatened war if North Korea continues its nuclear program, or threatens US allies and territories in the Pacific, Germany has loudly insisted that a diplomatic solution is the only alternative. Mr. Gabriel in an interview with the tabloid Bild Zeitung said that, while sanctions were appropriate and should be given time to work, Pyongyang would also have to be convinced that it doesn’t need nuclear weapons to defend itself.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un “is not crazy,” Mr. Gabriel said. “He’s following a coolly-calculated strategy: If he has a nuclear bomb, he thinks his regime is safe. Because no one will dare to threaten him.” Changing his mind will require “a different kind of security guarantee than the nuclear bomb,” Mr. Gabriel added.
That might be a bit too much realism for the United States to play ball.
Torsten Riecke is Handelsblatt’s international correspondent and Moritz Koch foreign policy correspondent in Berlin. Christopher Cermak is an editor for Handelsblatt Global, currently based in Washington DC. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org