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In a turbulent and uncertain world where nationalism and religious zealotry are on the rise, Canada needs to consider actions that will safeguard and advance its national interests. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of nuclear proliferation, as states such as North Korea and Iran develop these weapons and, with them, a long-range missile delivery capability. A good place to start would be to relaunch discussions with the U.S. for a partnership role in ballistic missile defence.

The most obvious threat is from the erratic regime in Pyongyang, which is desperately pursuing its ambition to deploy a missile capacity capable of striking the U.S. homeland. One may discount the wild rhetoric and clumsy tests, but there's little doubt that North Korea is determined to acquire a capability to threaten North America and hold our cities hostage, however perverse or irrational such a goal might seem to be. Conventional analyses simply do not apply on anything emanating from a government about which so little is known.

Like it or not, given the uncertainties about North Korea's technological prowess, Canada would be as vulnerable as the United States. We would almost certainly be on the flight path of any missile the North Koreans decided to fire at the U.S., should that day come. And there's no guarantee that a missile directed at Washington or New York, or even Seattle or Los Angeles, wouldn't inadvertently land on Toronto or Vancouver. It would be prudent for us to act accordingly and begin to deal with this security challenge now.

The infamous Kim dynasty has ruined the lives of millions of its own people, most of whom, apart from a privileged military and civilian elite, live in brutal gulag-style conditions denied even the most basic means of livelihood. What little wealth North Korea generates, mostly through illicit drug and arms sales, is squandered on military muscle and advanced weapons technology.

What the newest Kim intends to do with North Korea's nuclear arsenal, assuming he's really in control, is as unpredictable as it is destabilizing. Even China, its closest neighbour and ally, is increasingly wary about spontaneous combustion on the Korean Peninsula. The humanitarian and economic fallout would be devastating, and not just in the immediate vicinity.

Canada came very close to signing a ballistic missile defence agreement with the U.S. in 2004 but backed away at the last minute, ostensibly to avoid a renewal of the arms race but more likely because of domestic political allergies about doing anything on security with the George W. Bush administration.

At that time, the Liberal government of Paul Martin seemed to want a "say" in what was planned but was reluctant to make any kind of hard commitment to participate. As a result, we're on the outside looking in at what had the potential of refitting NORAD to a 21st-century threat. (The initial purpose of NORAD was for a different threat in a different age.) By standing down, we simply became irrelevant.

A priority for any government is the preservation of national security and, if anything, the risk of nuclear proliferation is greater today than it was a decade ago and not just from North Korea but also from countries such as Iran that appear intent on acquiring such capabilities. Initiatives are under way to quash the threat from terrorists, including the homegrown variety. Even more lethal are looming missile threats against which Canada has no practical defence other than to hope that our neighbour will act in its own interest and defend us against an attack, accidental or otherwise.

That's simply not good enough. The best antidote to the antics of North Korea is, as political economist Nicholas Eberstadt contended in The Wall Street Journal recently, a "threat reduction strategy" – a combination of sustained military and civilian actions, and not a repeat of offers of dialogue in the face of "bait and switch" extortion demands from North Korea trying to gain rewards for bad behaviour from all-too-gullible Western powers.

A serious effort by Canada to join in ballistic missile defence could be a constructive and prudent part of this strategy, complementing our continued support for strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation treaty regime, and would provide us with both a say and a role against missiles from other regimes as well. The time to act in our own security interest is now, and a partnership in ballistic missile defence should be the obvious priority.

Derek H. Burney is senior strategic adviser for Norton Rose Canada LLP and a former Canadian ambassador to the United States (1989–1993). Fen Osler Hampson is director of global security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Chancellor's Professor at Carleton University.