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North Korea threat: Will Europe help South Korea, Japan militarily?

While the EU is in agreement on N. Korea sanctions, it is less clear if European nations would commit militarily to the region should tensions worsen to the point at which fighting breaks out. Julian Ryall reports.

On her three-day state visit to Japan this week, British Prime Minister Theresa May made her position on North Korea's continued aggressions toward its immediate neighbors quite clear: May told her Japanese hosts she was "outraged" by Pyongyang's "reckless provocations."

May arrived in Japan one day after North Korea fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, prompting emergency warnings and public concern. Pyongyang had earlier threatened to launch ballistic missiles into waters close to the Pacific island of Guam, a US territory that hosts a key military base.

International condemnation of both incidents was swift, yet Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, once again ignored the outcry and insisted that his nation would test-fire more missiles into the Pacific. He said that sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council were driving the Korean Peninsula to "an extreme level of explosion."

Japan Theresa May auf Staatsbesuch bei Abe - Day Two (Reuters/Kazuhiro Nogi)

British PM Theresa May visited Japan earlier this week

Concerted and united

The timing of May's visit to Northeast Asia may have made her the face of Europe's concerted and united position on North Korea, but the European Union has also come out in clear support of pressure on Pyongyang.

In August, the Council of the European Union announced that it was aligning its newest sanctions with the latest UN Security Council resolution, adding nine people and four entities - including the state-owned Foreign Trade Bank - to the lists of those subject to an asset freeze and travel restrictions.

Read more: US ban on North Korea travel comes into force

The council added that the North's ongoing development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles were "in violation and flagrant disregard" of previous UN resolutions.

The EU took that one step further after Tuesday's missile launch, with Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign policy chief, issuing a statement in which she expressed support for calls for an emergency meeting of the Security Council.

She added that the EU would look at an "appropriate response in close consultation with key partners and in line with UN Security Council deliberations."

It is, however, unclear that the EU would commit military forces to the region should tensions deteriorate to the point at which fighting breaks out.

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Korea War commitments

The situation today is very different to that in 1950, when Britain, Turkey, Greece, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg all committed troops to the United Nations command that stemmed the initial North Korean invasion of the South and then fought Chinese troops until an armistice was signed three years later.

"If the armistice collapses and we return to wartime conditions on the peninsula, then the plan would be for the UN Command to assume military control once again and, depending on the political situations in other allied countries or organizations like NATO or the EU, then they would take individual decisions on providing support," said Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University.

Combatants and support that other nations could potentially provide "could be very important," he told DW, pointing out that a number of nations have already conducted joint exercises with Japanese and South Korean troops, as well as US units stationed in the region.

Read more: The North Korea crisis: 10 questions, 10 answers

Last November, for example, the Royal Air Force's Typhoon aircraft were involved in exercises with both their Japanese and South Korean counterparts, while members of the Royal Tank Regiment also observed maneuvers with South Korean armored units earlier in the year.

And Britain's presence in the region has not gone unnoticed in Pyongyang, with the Korean Central News Agency in late August not only denouncing Washington and Seoul as "warmongers" for carrying out the "provocative Ulchi Freedom Guardian war exercises" - but also warning that Britain "faces a miserable end" if it took part in the drills.

Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University, says there has been "a shift in Europe's attention towards the Far East, especially with regard to the South China Sea and ensuring that international sea lanes remain open."

While that particular issue may involve China, North Korea is also on Europe's collective radar.

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Europe's ICBM fears

"Europe is obviously watching North Korea's ICBM capabilities and determining whether they pose a direct threat and, if push came to shove, there would be a strong incentive for the EU to cooperate with South Korea and Japan to try to contain any North Korean actions," he said.

The problem for Europe is complicated, however, by Europe's concern over the simmering conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and the need to have forces in place should that situation once again deteriorate into widespread fighting.

"If a war did break out on the Korean Peninsula, then I do not anticipate it lasting for years, like the last war there, and I expect the US would finish it fairly quickly," Nagy said. "It might be over too fast for other nations to commit significant forces, but there would most definitely be a role for Europe and other countries to play in rebuilding what was left afterwards."

Perhaps Europe's greatest contribution would come in providing immediate aid to millions of civilians caught up in the fighting, in building the functions of a government, of reconstructing infrastructure, of eliminating land mines and countless other elements that would be needed to get a new North Korea back on its feet, he said.

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