For a moment last week it seemed the United States was newly interested in talking with North Korea.
“We’ve said from the diplomatic side, we’re ready to talk any time North Korea would like to talk and we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last Tuesday.
The moment — a potential break in the tension of North Korea’s nuclear threat and the bellicose rhetoric of American officials — did not last long.
On Wednesday, a White House official surmised that “clearly right now is not the time” for talks. By Friday, Tillerson was telling an audience at the United Nations that “North Korea must earn its way back to the table.”
“A sustained cessation of North Korea’s threatening behaviour must occur before talks can begin,” he said.
The secretary of state now arrives in Ottawa to at least talk about North Korea with a Canadian minister who has called for a diplomatic solution.
North Korea meeting
In his first official visit to Canada, Tillerson will sit down Tuesday with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the cabinet committee on Canada-U.S. relations. The topics are expected to include the shared border, the situation in Venezuela and, of course, the ongoing NAFTA negotiations.
But North Korea is expected to be a significant point of discussion.
Last month, Freeland announced that Canada and the U.S. would host a meeting of interested nations to discuss North Korea in early 2018. A guest list has yet to be confirmed, but the conference is now expected to take place next month in Vancouver.
“Canada believes that a diplomatic solution to the North Korea crisis is essential and possible,” Freeland said in November.
What role can Canada play?
A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity on Monday, said there has been a lack of discussion since the so-called six-party talks — involving South Korea, North Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia — stalled in 2009.
“It’s kind of a basic question about assessing is there a path here and what does it look like?” the official said, noting that Canada is keen to participate in the conversation and facilitate a discussion.
Marius Grinius, a former Canadian ambassador to both South Korea and North Korea, says the conference is a “great idea,” but the precise extent of Canada’s role remains to be seen.
Canada, he says, has had limited contact with North Korea since 2010 and must rebuild its credibility and expertise on the file.
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The Canadian government is known to have had several interactions with the North Koreans in recent months. A Canadian delegation, led by the prime minister’s national security adviser, visited North Korea in August to facilitate the release Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim. Freeland spoke with her North Korean counterpart twice that same month.
Last month, Trudeau also publicly mused about using Cuba as a conduit to get messages to North Korea.
“Canada does not have a major role. The key players are North Korea, China, the U.S., South Korea and Japan,” said Roland Paris, a professor at the University of Ottawa and a former senior adviser to Trudeau on foreign affairs.
“But Canada can help at the margins in two ways: by reinforcing a common position among like-minded countries, including co-ordinated pressure on China to get the North Korean regime to freeze nuclear testing [and] by encouraging the U.S. administration to resume talks with North Korea without preconditions.”
Still room for diplomacy
Tillerson has been described as a “steady voice of moderation” within Donald Trump’s administration, but his job security is also very much in doubt.
Jeffrey Feltman, an American and the UN undersecretary general for political affairs, says he recently told the North Korean regime it needed to signal a change in direction.
But, in the meantime, the U.S. president taunts North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “little rocket man” and North Korea continues to flex its missile capabilities. Analysts are worried war might be a real possibility.
Earlier this fall, the Congressional Research Service in the U.S. estimated that hundreds of thousands of people in South Korea could die in the first hours of a military conflict. Its report says a protracted war, involving biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, “could cause enormous casualties on a greater scale, and might expand to include Japan and U.S. territories in the region.”
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Anything Canada can do to prevent that, however small or large the role, could be valuable.
“Diplomatic solutions are far and few between, though I still believe all major players are keen to avoid open conflict between North Korea and the United States,” said Alex Wilner, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University.
“If that’s true, then there’s still room — and a need for — diplomacy.”