Walkom: Canada can play diplomacy role in North Korean crisis

Believe it or not, Canada can play a useful role in the North Korean crisis. Ottawa’s decision to co-host, with the U.S., an international summit on the issue next year is not overreach. Done correctly, it could point to a way out of the impasse caused by Pyongyang’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons.

Done badly, it could make matters worse.

Details of the proposed meeting of foreign ministers remain woefully vague. We know it will be held in Canada some time in 2018 and that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is onside.

We don’t know if Tillerson will still have his job then (as I write this, another rumour of his being fired by U.S. President Donald Trump is making the rounds). Nor, aside from South Korea, Japan and China, do we know exactly who’s being invited.

The potential guest list includes 13 of the 15 countries that fought alongside Canada in the United Nations Command during the 1950-53 Korean War. For some reason, Luxembourg and Ethiopia didn’t make the cut.

It’s up in the air as to whether Russia will be invited. North Korea definitely won’t be asked to attend.

If the U.S. and Canada hope to use this gathering simply to gang up on North Korea again, nothing will be accomplished. The UN has already imposed harsh sanctions against the regime in Pyongyang. The international community, including China and Russia, regularly pronounce against dictator Kim Jong Un’s pursuit of nuclear-tipped missiles.

Yet none of this has persuaded Kim to give up his quest. Indeed, it seems to have only hardened his belief that North Korea must have nuclear weapons if it is to survive in such a hostile world.

If Kim sees this meeting as an attempt to reconstitute the anti-Pyongyang military alliance of the Korean War, matters can only get worse.

Conversely, if the old allies are planning to get together in the hope that they could help hammer out a formal end to that war, matters might improve.

Technically, North Korea is still at war with South Korea and the U.S.-led UN Command. The armistice of 1953 put a halt to the fighting in order to allow a peace treaty to be forged. But that never happened

For the U.S., a formal peace treaty has never been a priority. But the North has long seen such a treaty as essential to guaranteeing its security.

The U.S. refuses to talk substantively to North Korea until it gives up its nuclear missile program. North Korea won’t give up its nuclear program because it doesn’t trust the U.S.

It is possible that Canada can help to bridge this gap. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted in Charlottetown last week when speaking of North Korea, Canada can “play a role that the U.S. has chosen not to play,” by which he meant diplomacy.

Although Canada has imposed limits on its contact with North Korea, it has had diplomatic relations with Pyongyang since 2001. It can talk to North Korea and does so.

As Trudeau pointed out, Canada can also talk indirectly to North Korea through one country that maintains full diplomatic relations with Pyongyang – Cuba.

Canada also understands the fears and phobias of the U.S. perhaps better than any other country.

Trudeau even gets along with Trump.

This week, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland delivered the usual pro forma denunciation of North Korea’s latest missile test. Ho-hum. We know that North Korea shouldn’t have nukes. But then neither should India or Pakistan, or for that matter Russia, China or the U.S.

Far more interesting was her announcement of the planned get-together of foreign ministers.

It would be unrealistic to expect anything miraculous from this meeting. But maybe something will emerge to point the way out of the quandary the world finds itself in.

Certainly, nothing else has worked.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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