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People watch a news program showing North Korea's announcement that it conducted a hydrogen bomb test in Seoul, South Korea on Jan. 6. The North's nuclear test has provoked global outrage, a push for sanctions, even fear. But Kim Jong Un’s decision has also handed a gift of sorts to his rival in the South. In an instant, the explosion shifted the focus on the presidency of Park Geun-hye, who has faced several mass protests condemning her leadership in recent weeks. The letters read: "Will not use nuclear weapon if autonomy secured." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)

Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press

It's an idea with all the seeming absurdity of a modern-day modest proposal: Canada should make friends with the secretive regime that just set off a nuclear bomb.

When North Korea tested an explosive it called a hydrogen bomb last week, the global community responded with predictable outrage: rounds of denouncements, promises of more sanctions and, on Sunday, a menacing low-level flight by a U.S. B-52 bomber over nearby South Korea.

But if North Korea's fourth nuclear test made anything clear, it's that decades of predictable responses – diplomatic attempts to threaten and cajole Pyongyang – have amounted to little but failure.

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Maybe, John Gruetzner says, it's worth trying something different. Maybe it's worth inserting the maple leaf.

"Canada has a tradition of being a facilitator and peacemaker," said Mr. Gruetzner, a long-time business consultant in Beijing. "Tell me the difference between North Korea today and China when we engaged them in the 1970s?"

Canada today has virtually no standing with North Korea. It's not at the table for the stalled six-party talks that have sought North Korea's denuclearization, and it has none of the direct defence or public-safety worries of South Korea, China, Russia, Japan or the United States.

But that means it also has little of the baggage that encumber those other nations.

What it does have is history, and a prime minister whose father was instrumental in positioning Canada as an integral middle player in decades past.

It was under Pierre Trudeau that Ottawa began negotiations with Beijing that led to the establishment of diplomatic ties, the first between Communist China and a Western nation.

China coveted recognition from a developed foreign nation; Mr. Trudeau was convinced China should not linger in isolation, but should instead occupy a seat at the United Nations.

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Canada and China established formal relations in 1970, with a so-called "Canada Formula" that recognized Beijing's insistence on owning Taiwan without committing Ottawa to that position – although it amounted to acceptance of a "one-China" policy.

Mao Zedong, on hearing that negotiations had concluded, seized on their importance: "Now we have made a friend in the backyard of America!" he said, according to Chen Wenzhao, a former Chinese diplomat.

In quick succession, numerous other countries followed Canada's lead and, in some cases, its Taiwan formulation.

Pierre Trudeau's logic for rapprochement with China could, in some measure, be applied to North Korea today: "China must become a member of the world community because many of the major world issues will not be resolved unless and until an accommodation has been reached with the Chinese nation," he said in 1968.

There are gaping differences, of course, chief among them that North Korea has none of China's economic importance. Ottawa a half-century ago could dream of selling airplanes, telecommunications technology and wheat to China – all of which it went on to do. North Korea has mineral and energy assets that might tempt a Calgary wild-cutter or Vancouver mining promoter. But the country of 24 million is unlikely to be a major buyer of anything Canadian.

North Korea already has a seat at the UN and diplomatic relations with many nations, so any Canadian approach would look very different from what happened in China decades ago, and might involve Canada brokering international aid and investment in exchange for disarmament.

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There's little guarantee it would work, since so many have failed before.

But there's not a lot to lose, Mr. Gruetzner argued. The cost of launching a small diplomatic mission in Pyongyang, and the kind of foreign travel it might take to draw North Korean technocrats out into the world, "is one-10th the cost of a destroyer," he said.

"If it brings peace and stability to the region, it saves us a lot more money than we've made in China in the last 30 years."

Mr. Gruetzner is a believer in the power of dialogue. He recalls speaking with the wife of a former Chinese foreign minister who told him a 1972 Canadian business and technology delegation – with 219 companies, who received a quarter-million visitors in Beijing – had a sweeping impact.

"She said, 'I'm telling you this in sincerity, one of the reasons the Cultural Revolution stopped was your exhibition,' " Mr. Gruetzner said.

"She said the reason was very simple: 'We went in and we saw all this technology you had and there was this mass collective understanding that the world had moved forward and China was two generations behind.' To me, that's your argument for engagement."

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And if that's not reason enough for Canada to think about North Korea, Mr. Gruetzner has an appeal to pride.

"Canada won the Nobel Prize in 1957," he said, "and that was a long time ago."

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