Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

People watch a TV showing file images of North Korea's missile launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, on March 9, 2020.Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press

The federal government developed a strategy to re-engage diplomatically with North Korea last year, running quietly alongside U.S. President Donald Trump’s overt rapprochement with the authoritarian regime, newly released documents reveal.

Throughout the fall of 2018, senior Canadian officials held clandestine meetings with their counterparts from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which led to a 2019 plan for “enhanced diplomatic engagement” with Kim Jong-un’s regime, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail via access to information requests.

Ottawa’s plan to rebuild relations is outlined in a February, 2019, briefing note that is almost entirely redacted, but some files suggest Canada was even studying the possibility of reopening its embassy in Pyongyang, though it’s unclear what conditions would have to be met for that to occur.

The documents also reveal how Canada began to position itself in the Korean peace process after a January, 2018, meeting of 20 countries – co-hosted in Vancouver by then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland and her U.S. counterpart – to discuss how to disarm Mr. Kim’s nuclear-equipped regime.

The summit coincided with a more conciliatory position from a new government in South Korea and set the stage for a flurry of high-level meetings between Pyongyang and Washington. The meetings produced plenty of fanfare, as well as fawning letters and tweets between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim.

Ottawa opted for a subtle approach, setting up a dedicated North Korea task force inside Global Affairs.

In late September, 2018, senior Canadian officials spoke over the phone with officials in the DPRK’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. The heavily redacted summary of the calls notes that Ottawa pushed Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program and volunteered to help in the verification and inspection process. Canada even identified nuclear inspectors who could be ready to visit North Korean production and test sites, were Pyongyang to agree. The whole effort was approved by Ms. Freeland.

The calls led to secret – and unprecedented – meetings that fall in Vancouver and Ottawa with six North Korean representatives, including the senior Foreign Affairs Ministry official responsible for North America.

The three-day Ottawa program in October included a dinner, meetings with humanitarian groups, a sightseeing tour of the Parliament buildings and 24 Sussex Dr., and a walking tour of Gatineau Park.

While the meetings were eventually made public last year, the documents finally reveal the kind of commitments that were on the table. They mention the possibility of “confidence-building measures, including military-to-military.” They do not indicate that any formal commitments were made and suggest that any arrangements were conditional upon North Korea making concessions around its weapons program and its deplorable human-rights record.

Ottawa was careful to avoid the perception that the secret talks signalled a drastic policy shift, telling Seoul, Tokyo and Washington that “the visit does not signify a change in the status of our diplomatic relations with the DPRK."

A request to Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne’s office for a briefing on the state of Canada’s re-engagement efforts with North Korea was denied. His office did not answer specific questions but said in a statement: “We continue to work closely with our allies to implement sanctions and champion human rights on the Korean Peninsula.”

While North Korean representatives have made unofficial visits to Canada before, the secret talks represent the highest level of engagement in years. Canada has not had full diplomatic relations with the DPRK since the Korean War. Ottawa recognized the state in 2000 and appointed an ambassador not long after, but it pulled the accreditation in 2010 and refused a North Korean ambassador to Ottawa after the DPRK allegedly sunk a South Korean battleship. Since then, Ottawa has limited its discussions with Pyongyang to security, humanitarian and consular issues. In 2017, national security adviser Daniel Jean travelled to North Korea to secure the release of detained Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim.

The 2018 meetings had to be arranged through the North Korean mission to the United Nations.

Jack Kim, the chairman of the board for HanVoice, a national organization that urges Canada to take a tougher stand on human rights in North Korea, told The Globe that his group was aware of the October meetings but was not invited to participate.

“From our perspective, do you shake hands with the devil?” Mr. Kim said. North Korea runs an extensive system of concentration camps, permits no kind of democratic freedoms and cracks down severely on those who try to escape the regime. On many of those fronts, things have gotten worse since Kim Jong-un took over after his father’s death in 2011.

At the same time, Mr. Kim said, his group communicates regularly with Ottawa and understands the effort. “Entirely sealing them off is not the correct approach,” he said. His group supports engaging with the North Korean people, especially defectors, wherever possible.

Ottawa’s strategy on Pyongyang has been “track 1.5,” the briefing notes say, meaning somewhere between track one, which includes country-to-country talks, and track two, which means engaging with civil society.

Ottawa has also supported academic exchanges between North Korean and Canadian universities and has approved visas for North Korean amateur athletes. It has also contributed $150,000 to an NGO program to promote the role of women in the peace process.

Early in 2019, Global Affairs officials scrambled to approve a request from Vancouver-based First Steps, which exports soy milk to North Korea to fight child malnutrition. The charity also wanted to ship production equipment to the DPRK. Ms. Freeland signed off on the plan in February, just a year and a half after First Steps made its application – an unusually short timeline for such a request.

For all the momentum of the U.S.-North Korea talks, which went on throughout 2018 and 2019, there was little tangible progress. The Ottawa memos note “recent comments from President Trump suggesting he was in no rush to achieve denuclearization of North Korea.”

Even after Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim met in June, 2019, in the demilitarized zone between the DPRK and South Korea, the regime continued its provocative ballistic missile tests. The year saw a number of cancelled or unproductive meetings.

North Korea has tried desperately to get relief from punishing international sanctions, which have largely isolated the broader economy. The briefing notes indicate Canada won’t drop its wide-ranging sanctions, which cover most trade in goods and services, until North Korea “completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantles its WMD and ballistic missile programs.”

Yet the notes acknowledge that the “sanctions have a mixed record … due partly to insufficient implementation and increasingly sophisticated sanctions evasion by North Korea.”

In recent years, Canada has joined a coalition effort, dispatching a warship and surveillance aircraft to stop smuggling in the Korean Peninsula.

HanVoice’s Mr. Kim said it’s time to consider dropping the broad sanctions in order to “hit them where it hurts” by targeting the corrupt state’s ruling class.

He said he has heard little in the past year about efforts to re-establish diplomatic relations. But he is philosophical about the pace of things.

“North Korea is not a short game, it’s a long game.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe