Tuesday’s Vancouver summit on North Korea underscores how impossibly difficult the standoff between Washington and Pyongyang has become.
The summit, co-hosted by Canada and the U.S., was billed as an attempt to reinject diplomacy into a situation that is becoming increasingly dangerous.
But in opening remarks by key foreign ministers from the 20 countries invited to Vancouver to deal with the crisis over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, there was little talk of diplomacy.
In fact, both U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono lauded countries that have broken off diplomatic relations with the North, urging more to do the same.
Kono said it was “naive” to read too much into the North’s sudden decision to reopen talks with South Korea. Pyongyang, he said, was merely trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and its allies.
Even South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, who lauded her country’s talks with the North as “positive,” insisted that unrelenting pressure on Pyongyang must continue.
And that’s what this odd summit was about – pressure.
I say odd because the guest list made little practical sense. Belgium and Denmark were invited but not China and Russia – both of which have leverage over North Korea.
Most nations that contributed troops to the South’s side in the 1950-53 Korean War were represented in Vancouver, including Colombia and Greece. But Ethiopia, which had suffered 657 casualties in that war, was not.
Exactly why summit organizers thought it useful to revive even a portion of the old anti-Pyongyang Korean War alliance was never spelled out.
But the general idea, it seems, was to convince as many nations as possible of the need to fully implement tough United Nations sanctions against North Korea.
A fully implemented sanctions regime, Tillerson said, could persuade the North to abandon its nuclear program.
His unspoken corollary was that if sanctions don’t work, the U.S. will use military force to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weaponry.
To bolster sanctions, the U.S. is encouraging maritime nations to interdict ships believed to be carrying banned materials, such as fuel oil, to North Korea.
This is a tricky business.
The latest UN Security Council resolution on North Korea permits any nation to stop, search and seize vessels believed to be carrying contraband – as long as they are in the seizing nation’s territorial waters.
But it does not authorize search and seizure on the high seas. That is, it does not authorize a full-scale naval blockade, which North Korea could legitimately call an act of war.
Last month, South Korea impounded two ships believed to have transported contraband fuel oil to North Korea. But it did so only after they had docked in South Korean ports.
A confrontation in international waters would have been considerably more provocative.
All of which is to say that the options open to those who would avoid war on the Korean Peninsula are not easy.
All agree that a negotiated solution is best.
But the Americans will talk to the North only if it agrees to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
And the North, mindful of what happened to other states that surrendered their weapons of mass destruction, will not do that.
Economic sanctions designed to force North Korea’s compliance represent the second-best solution.
But they work only if stringently applied. And truly stringent measures, such as a full-scale naval blockade, risk igniting the war the sanctions are designed to avoid.
In the end, only artful diplomacy of the sort that produced the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement can find a way past this logjam.
The Vancouver summit was billed as a start along this road. It is not at all clear that it succeeded.
Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.