Marius Grinius, former Canadian ambassador to South Korea (2004-2007) and concurrently to North Korea (2005-2007), is a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
North Korea's apparently successful third ICBM launch on Tuesday coincided with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's announcement that Canada intends to co-host with the United States a meeting of relevant foreign ministers in early 2018 "to discuss how the global community can counter North Korea's threat to international peace." It was thought that Canada would be a good choice to hold such a meeting "because it was less directly involved in the crisis than the U.S., Japan, South Korea or China."
Canada, with other like-minded nations, had established diplomatic relations with North Korea in 2001 to support South Korea's then-president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" of engagement with North Korea. Diplomatic recognition was driven by a broadly shared unease about North Korea as a failing state, especially in the light of massive starvation in the late 1990s, as well as its nuclear-weapon ambitions.
Canada's announcement to participate in helping resolve the ongoing North Korean crisis is to be welcomed at this critical juncture. Outside of pro forma diplomatic condemnations of North Korean nuclear-weapon and missile tests and symbolic adherence to UN trade sanctions, Canada had been missing in action on the North Korean file since 2010. That's when the Harper government established its policy of "controlled engagement" toward North Korea which, in effect, meant no engagement and marginal relevance on what is one of the world's greatest security threats.
The only instance of Canadian official engagement culminated earlier this year when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's national security adviser secured the release of Canadian Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, who had been arrested in Pyongyang in 2015 for "crimes against the state."
Canada's return to active participation on North Korean security issues is timely. Ever-tightening UN sanctions, crafted by China, Russia and the U.S., are full of loopholes. Meanwhile, stronger U.S. unilateral sanctions against a few Chinese commercial entities dealing with North Korea have had little or no effect on its relentless race to develop a viable nuclear warhead on a missile capable of reaching North America. Seoul and Tokyo have long been within North Korean missile range.
Although China-North Korean relations continue to deteriorate, Beijing has no interest in sanctioning North Korea to the point of regime collapse – at least not yet. Eventually, China may have to acknowledge that North Korea is a strategic liability for its global ambitions.
Both China and Russia have called for a "freeze-for-a-freeze" approach, whereby North Korea would halt its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for the U.S. and South Korea halting their annual combined military exercises. This proposal has been rejected by the U.S. and apparently by North Korea with Tuesday's missile test.
U.S. President Donald Trump has dismissed his predecessor's policy of "strategic patience" toward North Korea for something called "maximum pressure and maximum engagement," with emphasis on the former and mostly disparaging remarks about the latter.
The U.S. maintains that all options remain on the table but wiser American heads continue to put diplomacy ahead of any questionable military action. While supporting UN sanctions, both Japan and South Korea are calling for negotiations that would lead to a denuclearized North Korea. Both countries, however, have difficult relations with each other and with China.
Neither China nor the U.S. nor the other major players seem to know what to do next with North Korea. Pyongyang appears unwilling to negotiate away its nuclear weapons and missile capability, both deemed to be vital to the survival of the Stalinist Kim Jong-un regime.
To add to the security conundrum, North Korea is suspected of maintaining extensive stocks of chemical weapons and possibly biological weapons.
This highly complex and dangerous situation may be the opportunity for Canada to show that it is indeed back on the global stage and reburnish its credentials as helpful fixer and bridge-builder committed to the peaceful settlement of disputes.
The meeting in early 2018, co-hosted by Canada, may just be the place to start. Having long been missing in action, however, Canada will have to work hard to re-establish its credibility and expertise on North Korean issues, which is an important building block in reasserting Canada's political and security commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. It is in Canada's interest to be there.