Comment: North Korea: Can Canada play a role?

As the most recent set of sanctions against North Korea begin to take effect, Canada and the U.S. will co-host an international meeting of foreign ministers in Vancouver to address the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

The meeting on Jan. 16 of what is now dubbed the “Vancouver Group” will include foreign ministers from the 16 countries that were part of the UN-led coalition fighting against North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, along with South Korea, India, Sweden and Japan. It will look at two key issues: How to more effectively put pressure on the North, and at the same time how to prepare for diplomatic talks to end the crisis.

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The conference comes at a time of both increased tension — with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump still publicly goading each other — and some glimmers of hope. Kim has dropped hints about willingness to talk, and North and South Korea are sending tentative signals to ease tensions: North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics in South Korea, and the re-establishment of a hotline between the two sides.

Any international action on North Korea that doesn’t involve military force is welcome. There is some logic to the members of the former UN coalition discussing the prospects for a potential peace treaty as a logical first step to a diplomatic solution, but any productive discussion on pressuring North Korea requires the presence of China, whose attendance is uncertain at this point.

Canada’s return to an active role on North Korea is also welcome, but to be effective as a co-host, Canada will have to improve its own credibility on the North Korea issue.

Despite having diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, Canada has been virtually absent from engagement with North Korea for more than seven years, since the Conservatives, in response to North Korea’s 2010 sinking of the South Korean submarine Cheonan, put in place a “controlled engagement strategy.” This effectively bans ambassador-level contact with the government in Pyongyang, and limits even low-level interaction to a short list of issues of importance only to Canada.

It was not until recently that this rule was slightly relaxed. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland met her North Korean counterpart on the margins of a meeting in Manila in August 2017, in an effort to obtain the release of an imprisoned Canadian pastor, whose release was negotiated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser, Daniel Jean, during a followup visit to Pyongyang. The successful negotiation of the pastor’s release, however, was a one-off, and there have been no apparent moves on Canada’s part since then to restore regular senior-level contacts.

This means that, as tensions on the Korean Peninsula have escalated, Canada has not had an active network of high-level contacts in Pyongyang, and thus no direct and regular platform for advocacy, influence and information-gathering in North Korea. Advice to the minister and prime minister is based essentially on second-hand observations and assessments.

If Canada wishes to assert a leading role on the issue, a starting point should be formally re-establishing ambassador-level contacts with North Korea. Canadian senior officials should also establish regular contacts with their North Korean counterparts, with structured discussions on bilateral and regional issues of concern, including North Korea’s terrible human-rights situation. Canada should not waver in its position on this, nor in its support of tough sanctions on the regime.

Critics will say that this would amount to rewarding North Korea for bad behaviour, but this kind of narrow, transactional thinking is partly to blame for the current situation. Diplomatic engagement is most essential when relations are tough, and when values and standards are not shared. It is this kind of discussion that can maintain peace and avoid war. Besides, the lack of contact under the controlled-engagement policy did nothing to move North Korea off its policy stance.

A successful conference in Vancouver, with the right players at the table, can set the stage for a workable solution to the North Korea issue. Since Canada’s foreign minister has stressed the importance of a diplomatic solution, it’s time she made full use of Canada’s own diplomats to help make this happen.

Philip Calvert is a senior research associate at the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives at the University of Victoria. A retired Canadian diplomat, he has served at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, and as director general for North Asia in Global Affairs Canada. Most recently he was Canada’s ambassador to Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

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