Canada's top general says the Royal Canadian Navy has the "capability" to help enforce United Nations sanctions against North Korea if asked to do so at Tuesday's foreign ministers summit in Vancouver.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is co-hosting the summit with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, intends to use the one-day meeting to examine measures to stop the regime of Kim Jong-un from skirting sanctions, including an increased focus on blocking ships from supplying North Korea with embargoed goods.
But nobody has asked for Canada's military assistance – yet.
General Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff, said he has "the military capability inside the Armed Forces" to participate in any effort to ensure compliance with UN sanctions.
"But willingness, intent to do so – those are entirely political decisions and [we] have not even entered into conversations about that at all," Gen. Vance told The Globe and Mail on Friday. "And in fact, at this juncture, nobody is asking us to."
Ms. Freeland and Mr. Tillerson are playing host in Vancouver to 11 foreign ministers as well as diplomats from a total of 20 countries that had an involvement in the 1950-53 Korean War to discuss how to exert maximum pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis and Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan will attend a ministerial dinner Monday evening – a sign that the military option remains open to the United States.
But the goal of the foreign ministers meeting is to avoid a military showdown with North Korea by taking steps to persuade Mr. Kim to the negotiating table for meaningful talks.
"North Korea's illegal nuclear weapons program is a threat to regional and global stability," British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in a statement Sunday. "Sanctions are biting but we need to maintain diplomatic pressure on Kim Jong-un's regime."
New UN sanctions adopted last month authorize member states to inspect, seize and impound any vessels in their territorial waters found to be transporting embargoed goods to North Korea. In December, South Korea seized two ships carrying oil to the North.
The new sanctions – which also require countries hosting North Korean migrant workers to repatriate them – were imposed against Pyongyang following its November intercontinental ballistic missile test that was capable of hitting North America.
China – which declined an invitation to Vancouver – and Russia have criticized Tuesday's summit for being too narrowly focused on sanctions and isolation of North Korea and less on the need for dialogue with Mr. Kim, the 33-year-old dictator.
But South Korea's ambassador to Canada Shin Maeng-ho told The Globe that sanctions are the only way to bring pressure on Mr. Kim. Since the sanctions were enacted, he noted the Kim regime has recently opened a hotline with Seoul and agreed to send athletes to the Olympic Games in South Korea next month.
"We have no illusion about North Korea," Mr. Shin said. "We should not drink champagne because it is too early but this a chance to lead North Korea to denuclearization."
South Korea is particularly alarmed about the heated rhetoric between President Donald Trump and Mr. Kim that has seen both men hurl insults and brag about which leader has the bigger nuclear button. Talk of a U.S. pre-emptive military strike has been raised in the Trump White House after North Korea boasted it is on the verge of developing a nuclear-tipped, long-range Hwasong-15 missile.
"Dialogue is more important than ever. Previously we thought we had time for negotiations to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, but this time we have no time anymore because North Korea is at the final point of developing nuclear missile technology," Ambassador Shin said. "If we fail at this dialogue then the remaining option may be military strikes so I think this dialogue is really important to evolve into higher level of talks for the denuclearization of North Korea."
Although the Vancouver talks are designed to send a unified message that sanctions should be enforced as a means of bringing about denuclearization talks, experts say the Vancouver summit is also aimed at shoring up Mr. Tillerson and Defence Secretary Mattis in their battle with White House hawks, who prefer a military solution over diplomacy.
"It reinforces those within the administration and those beyond the administration like the South Koreans who are in favour of diplomacy over military measures," said retired Canadian diplomat James Trottier, who led diplomatic delegations to North Korea in 2015 and 2016.
But Mr. Trottier said the summit won't succeed unless foreign ministers discuss new approaches to dealing with North Korea and that means ending the U.S. insistence that Mr. Kim pledge to end his nuclear program before serious talks can begin.
"Post-Vancouver, at some point the international community needs to face the fact that North Korea is a de facto nuclear state and look at issues of de-escalation and containment," he said. "This will involve discussions with North Korea without pre-conditions."
Simon Palamar of the Centre for International Governance Innovation said no country that has ever developed nuclear weapons has then negotiated them away. He said Washington – working with China, Russia, South Korea and Japan – needs to push North Korea for a freeze on ballistic missile tests and a cap on nuclear weapons.
With a report from Gloria Galloway