Canada Poised to Play an Important Role in Defusing the North Korea Crisis

Closer coordination is essential as countries with a stake in this issue are still miles apart on everything from the scale of the threat to the most desirable way forward.

by Dec 8, 2017

Secretary Tillerson and Canadian Foreign Minister Freeland Address Reporters in Washington. U.S. Department of State

Responses to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests are often predictable. At a minimum, following each new provocation, the international community can bet on a push for additional sanctions at the United Nations Security Council and a colourful comment or two from Donald Trump. The country’s latest launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile – capable of striking targets on the east coast of the United States — has been no exception. Tokyo and Seoul immediately expressed their intention to seek yet tighter UN sanctions, while the US President told crowds at a rally that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un is a “sick puppy”.

Few were expecting an announcement that Canada would host a high-level meeting on the North Korea situation, however. In a statement on 28 November, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said that Canada will soon co-host a meeting of over a dozen foreign ministers together with the United States, “to address this most pressing international threat.” Ottawa is reportedly eager to steer the international conversation towards a peaceful solution to the ongoing crisis.

The proposed meeting should not be confused for direct nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang, who is not expected to be invited to the Canadian event, and who flatly refuses to participate in any effort to unwind its nuclear program. Instead, it is an effort to coordinate the policies of other key, relevant players.

“The proposed meeting should not be confused for direct nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang.”

That is an important step and sensible role for Canada. When it comes to the Korean Peninsula security situation, any policy approach or tool depends upon multilateralism to be effective. To generate the pressure they are designed to, sanctions must be implemented by everyone from China and Russia (North Korea’s primary trading partners), to customers of North Korean weapons in the Middle East and Africa. Policies aimed at deterring aggression by Pyongyang demand close coordination between the US and its allies. And dialogue, the focus of the forthcoming ministerial meeting, requires buy-in from the countries who would be most affected by the North Korean situation, especially if that situation took an even sharper turn for the worse. Pyongyang’s threats to conduct an atmospheric nuclear test make that a worryingly real prospect.

While North Korea’s provocative behaviour is steadily driving capitals closer together, countries with a stake in this issue are still miles apart on everything from the scale of the threat to the most desirable way forward. These gaps must be narrowed if any meaningful progress is to be made. A single ministerial meeting may not be a golden ticket to unity, but it is a good place to start.

For an example of the importance of closer coordination on North Korea, observers need look no further than the messaging by the co-hosts about the meeting itself. A comparison of the statements from Canadian and American ministers reveal noticeable divergences in their presentation of the event’s participants and aims. Canada’s version talks of the event bringing together “important implicated countries”. The announcement by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on the other hand, is more specific; it characterizes the participants as primarily the “United Nations Command Sending States” – the troop contributing countries from the Korean War – plus Japan and South Korea. US Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, presented the attendees in the same way.

“Countries with a stake in this issue are still miles apart on everything…”

In framing the need for the meeting, Canadian ministers are clear that they believe diplomacy is both “possible and essential and possible”. In contrast, Tillerson caveats the potential for diplomatic options, saying they “remain viable and open, for now” and ministers will discuss how to “counter” the North Korean threat.

The American formulation is concerning, particularly against the backdrop of the White House’s consistently loose talk of military action. By implying that participants were selected primarily because of their role in fighting the last Korean War, and then emphasizing the temporary nature of diplomatic options, Tillerson’s statement makes it sound as if this may actually be about beginning to coordinate countries in preparation for a future military scenario. Follow-up comments by US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, that we are “closer to war”, do not help dispel this impression.

Hopefully this is not the reading intended by the State Department or by Tillerson, who is widely rumoured to be replaced as Secretary of State in the coming months, casting some uncertainty on the plans for the 2018 meeting. It is, however, yet another recent example of the importance of careful messaging when formulating North Korea policy. Giving North Korea the impression that the US and its allies are contemplating attacking it is foolish and short-sighted. That very belief is what has motivated Pyongyang to develop a nuclear deterrent. The more convinced it becomes of its assessment of US intentions, the further out of reach the goal of restraining and rolling back the North Korean nuclear program will be.

Minister Freeland has rightly avoided referencing the UN Command and emphasized the need to find non-military ways forward. If the United States shares that respectable objective and wants to make a success of the meeting, it should choose its words more carefully, and ensure that any leadership changes at State Department do not jeopardize this rare opportunity to explore creative diplomatic solutions to the North Korean nuclear issue. No one wants another Korean War.

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Andrea Berger
Andrea Berger is a Senior Research Associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and a Senior Fellow at the Canadian International Council.