Opinion: How useful was North Korea summit?

Not very, it turns out

How useful was last week’s Vancouver summit on North Korea? The short answer is: Not very.

But Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who co-hosted the summit with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, can console herself with the fact that it could have been worse.

The summit’s fatal flaw was the guest list. China and Russia, which are essential to reaching peace on the Korean Peninsula, were not invited to participate. Yet countries such as Belgium and Denmark, which have had little to do with the region since the Korean War ended 65 years ago, were asked to come.

This wasn’t how the summit was originally billed. When Freeland first announced her plans in late November, she said China’s attendance would be crucial.

“We absolutely intend to invite China and we very much hope China will be able to attend,” she told reporters then.

Exactly why Freeland and Tillerson changed their minds is unclear. But in the end, China was not invited as a full participant.

Predictably, both Beijing and Moscow condemned the Vancouver summit as counterproductive.

Yet in the main they were right. One of America’s great diplomatic coups has been its ability to forge an international consensus with China and Russia on the Korean nuclear crisis. Thanks to the Vancouver summit, that consensus is now threatened.

Exactly what the summit was intended to accomplish remains a mystery. The common factor among the 20 nations invited was that all had been involved, to some degree, in the 1950-53 Korean War.

Yet in Vancouver, there appears to have been no attempt to reforge the U.S.-led military alliance that fought in that war against North Korea.

Tillerson and Freeland said one purpose of the summit was to encourage stricter implementation of UN sanctions against North Korea. But of the top ten countries that trade with the North, seven – Russia, China, Pakistan, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Luxembourg and Singapore – were not invited.

The summit was presented as an effort to encourage a diplomatic solution to the crisis

And in the final communiqué, there was some talk of diplomacy.

But in his opening remarks, Tillerson also lauded those nations which have broken off diplomatic relations with the North.

Certainly, there was no mention of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s suggestion that he might use Canada’s ties with Cuba to open a backchannel to Pyongyang.

Nor was there any suggestion that the Liberals might reverse the previous Conservative government’s decision to severely restrict diplomatic contacts with the North.

In short, diplomacy was lauded – but only up to a point.

Perhaps the best that can be said about the summit is that it didn’t come up with anything crazy.

Those attending didn’t agree, for instance, to set up a naval blockade around North Korea — which could legitimately be labelled an act of war. Instead, they spoke of curbing maritime smuggling to the North “in accordance with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.”

Those resolutions authorize countries to search and seize vessels believed to be containing contraband bound for North Korea — but only in their own territorial waters.

Canada’s aim in all of this appears to have been twofold.

First, Freeland seemingly wanted to bolster Tillerson’s pro-diplomacy approach in the ongoing internal White House debate over whether to wage war on North Korea. We shall see whether that succeeds.

Second, she was signalling that Canada is fully onside with the U.S. when it comes to the question of America’s security.

This is a traditional Canadian position. It was Lester Pearson’s when he was external affairs minister during the Cold War (although as prime minister, Pearson did famously break with the U.S. over Vietnam).

It is also a politic position to take during the fraught North American Free Trade Agreement talks.

But did the Vancouver summit do much to resolve the standoff over nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula? I’m afraid the answer is no.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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