Walkom: How Canada can help to defuse North Korean crisis

Canada is the useful go-between. It has played that role before to ease tensions between hostile states. It could do so again in the dangerous nuclear standoff between the U.S. and North Korea.

That standoff is at a crisis point. U.S. President Donald Trump insists that Pyongyang put a stop to its nuclear missile program. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un insists that he won’t.

Both sides have issued military threats to one other. Even South Korea, which under recently elected President Moon Jae-in had been talking of rapprochement with the North, now takes a much harder line.

Among other things, the South has announced plans to reconstitute an assassination team capable of murdering Kim. (Over the years, North Korea has tried to assassinate at least two South Korean presidents.)

That’s a far cry from Moon’s earlier overtures, which had included inviting North Korea to co-host the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Meanwhile, none of the strategies designed to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program is working.

The Chinese are unwilling to take any action against Pyongyang that might cause chaos on their border. Economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council have been notoriously unsuccessful.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin remarked recently that the North Koreans would rather eat grass than give up their nuclear weapons, he got it pretty much right.

Short of war then, the only option left for dealing with the North Korean regime is to talk to it.

Trump has said he won’t do that. But perhaps a trusted intermediary could.

Up to this point, Canada has not been a player in the Korean crisis. It was not part of the so-called six-country talks that took place intermittently between 2003 and 2009 involving North and South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the U.S.

Since 2010, Canada’s official policy toward North Korea has been one of “controlled engagement.” Simply put, that means Ottawa recognizes the regime in Pyongyang but, officially at least, talks as little as possible to it.

I say “officially” because, since Justin Trudeau took over as prime minister, Canada’s position on dealing with North Korea has loosened.

In August, Trudeau sent Daniel Jean, his trusted national security adviser, to Pyongyang. While Jean’s main task was to obtain the release of a Canadian pastor imprisoned by the regime (which he did), CBC reported at the time that Trudeau’s special envoy was also empowered to discuss “other issues of regional concern.”

That same month, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland met briefly with her North Korean counterpart on the sidelines of a conference in Manila.

In short, the groundwork has been laid for more substantive talks between Canada and Pyongyang.

For North Korea, talking to Canada may be the next best thing to talking to the U.S. Ottawa can’t speak for Washington. But it does understand the U.S. – perhaps better than the Americans themselves.

Trudeau has already explained Trump to the Europeans. He could perform the same service for North Korea’s Kim.

Conversely, Canada may be able to convince the U.S. that the North Koreans mean it when they say they won’t give up their nukes. The Americans won’t buy that analysis from Russia or China. They might from Canada.

A nuclear-armed North Korea is not an appetizing prospect. But it is reality. Unless America is willing to touch off a war that will vaporize both Koreas, it will have to accept this reality.

And that’s where talks can be useful. The endgame is not perfection. It is to minimize the damage.

North Korea’s successful transformation into a nuclear power has changed the balance of forces in East Asia. Japan and South Korea will be under pressure to develop their own nuclear weapons.

It is a dangerous time, one that requires adroit diplomacy. If Canada can help, it should.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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