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Politics Canada redoubling diplomatic efforts on North Korea

North Korean government shows off the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile.

Korean Central News Agency/AP

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says Ottawa is uncertain about North Korea's ability to hit North America with a long-range nuclear-tipped missile, but it is redoubling diplomatic efforts to discourage Pyongyang's "dangerously destabilizing" ambitions.

Despite the growing nuclear threat, Ms. Freeland would not say whether it's now time for Canada to join the U.S. missile-defence program, something the Conservative Party has been demanding.

Read also: How Canada can help solve the North Korea crisis

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The rogue North Korean state launched its most powerful intercontinental missile last week, which was capable of reaching targets as far away as 13,000 kilometres, putting Washington and all Canadian cities within striking distance.

Ms. Freeland said it is still unclear whether the Hwasong-15 missile, carrying a superheavy nuclear warhead, could survive atmospheric re-entry and hit a target in North America.

"We don't know for sure what the capacities and what the possibilities are. There are questions about what the weight of a nuclear warhead does to the trajectory of missiles," she told The Globe and Mail's editorial board on Friday.

"We definitely know enough that we need to be very concerned about North Korea's ballistics and nuclear missile testing."

Ms. Freeland did not answer directly when asked whether Canada will join the U.S. missile-defence shield or whether the Trudeau government assumes that the Americans would protect Canada as part of the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD).

"I really think our focus right now and I think it needs to be the focus of the entire world needs to be two things … diplomatic and economic pressure," she said. In May, Canada's deputy commander of NORAD, Lieutenant-General Pierre St-Amand, revealed that the current U.S. policy is not to intervene in the event of a ballistic-missile attack on Canada.

General Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff, recently told The Canadian Press that Canada has not even talked to the United States about joining the missile-defence shield although discussions are planned on upgrading NORAD's air defences. The Americans have spent more than $100-billion (U.S.) on land- and sea-based interceptors that form its continental missile shield.

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Ms. Freeland wouldn't say what defensive and emergency safety operations are in place to protect Canadians in the event North Korea launches a nuclear warhead at North America, a capability experts say may be possible early next year.

"We are redoubling our efforts on the diplomatic front," she said. "We need to maintain that pressure and it is important that that pressure be international and that North Korea really appreciates that its actions are dangerously destabilizing for the whole world."

Ms. Freeland and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are playing host to a major foreign ministers conference in Ottawa early in the New Year, aimed at strengthening pressure and sanctions on Pyongyang and its young dictator, Kim Jong-un.

The United Nations has already imposed harsh sanctions on North Korea and even China's urging for Pyongyang to pull back on its ballistic-missile testing have failed to persuade the regime to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Late last month, Prime Minister Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa could work with Cuba, which has full diplomatic relations with North Korea while Canada does not, to find a diplomatic solution.

Mr. Trudeau said Canada could "pass along messages through surprising conduits" but the Foreign Affairs Minister said Cuba is not acting as a conduit for Canada and provided no other details.

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Ms. Freeland was coy about what role Cuba is playing behind the scenes in defusing the standoff.

"Cuba is a country that Canada has good relations with and so we have conversations," she said. "That is all I am going to say about our conversations."

Ms. Freeland was also unwilling to talk about what would happen with international efforts to rein in North Korea should President Donald Trump dump Mr. Tillerson.

However, she noted that she not only has strong relations with the U.S. State Department but is in regular contact with White House national security adviser General H.R. McMaster.

Aside from the North Korean crisis, Ms. Freeland said Canada is preoccupied with three other international trouble spots: Venezuela's political and economic meltdown; the Rohingya refugee crisis; and Russian aggression in Ukraine.

On Iran, Ms. Freeland said Canada is still interested in re-establishing diplomatic relations but is doing so in a "very careful, very step-by-step way." At any international gatherings when she meets Iranian diplomats, she said, she always raises cases of Canadians imprisoned in Iran.

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