Analysis

North Korea summit in Vancouver to focus on enforcing sanctions ahead of diplomacy

There was a particularly enlightening moment of realpolitik on display recently at the U.S. State Department when the Trump administration outlined its priorities for this week's North Korea conference in Vancouver.

If meeting was about finding 'a real way forward,' Russia and China would be at the table, ex-diplomat says

Seventeen countries, including Canada, the U.S., U.K. and Australia, will gather in Vancouver on Tuesday to discuss how to deal with North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

There was a particularly enlightening moment of realpolitik on display recently at the U.S. State Department when the Trump administration outlined its priorities for this week's North Korea summit in Vancouver.

Brian Hook, the department's director of policy planning, laid out the much-anticipated conference's "to-do" list, which, in tenor at least, stands in outright contrast to the soothing sounds coming from the Trudeau government.

The gathering between Canada, the U.S., U.K., Australia and 13 other countries that fought the Korean War to a bloody stalemate 6½ decades ago is set "to discuss interdiction; to discuss nonproliferation; to discuss maritime activities; to discuss denying the [North Korean] regime the resources and the funding that it needs, and will also ... talk about diplomacy."

Diplomacy, the main focus of the Liberal government's on- and off-the-record messaging in the run-up to the gathering on Tuesday is relegated to the "other business" category on the agenda.

"We will be discussing how the international community can thwart North Korean efforts to evade UN sanctions through smuggling," Hook said.

There is a difference between negotiating with Kim Jong-un's regime over its nuclear and ballistic missile program and tightening the sanction screws through "maritime interdiction" and the disruption of funding and resources.

Nobody, at least in this country, has been talking about warships stopping and blocking North Korean and possibly Chinese — or even Russian — ships from illicit trafficking.

Through that lens, if it wasn't obvious already, the presence of the submarine HMCS Chicoutimi in waters off Japan looks a whole lot different.

Canada's HMCS Chicoutimi, seen in this file picture, is off the coast of Japan. (Canadian Press)

It also makes the absence of China and Russia — major players in any potential peaceful resolution of the North Korean crisis — more understandable and possibly chilling.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the Vancouver gathering a "pernicious and detrimental meeting."

At the end of December, it was widely reported Russian tankers provided fuel to North Korea, in violation of UN sanctions.

And in case anyone didn't think Washington was serious about this interdiction thing, the State Department followed up with a blunt press statement on Friday calling on countries that supported sanctions "to enforce all elements" of the UN resolutions related to North Korea.

Tempering expectations

There is also a distinction to be made between "our common objective of a secure and stable Korean peninsula," as Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland described the conference's purpose, and giving her American counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, covering fire as he tries to keep President Donald Trump away from his "big" nuclear button.

Shin Maeng-ho, South Korea's ambassador to Canada, and Liberal government insiders told CBC News last Friday the "main purpose" of the Vancouver meeting is to shore up Tillerson's tenuous position in his battle with the White House.

Experts say enforcing sanctions and giving the U.S. secretary of state room to manoeuvre with his own administration — a notion that is somewhat jaw-dropping in itself — are things that need to be accomplished before anyone begins talking about the diplomatic resolution that Freeland believes is "essential and possible."

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland talks about the need for diplomacy to solve the North Korea crisis, but U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems focused on enforcing sanctions against the regime. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

James Trottier, a former Canadian diplomat who headed the political/economic program at the Canadian Embassy in Seoul between 2013 to 2016, said the expectations for the conference, and perhaps even talk of substantive diplomacy with North Korea, should be tempered.

At the moment, "it's not a search for a real way forward," he said. "If it was a search for a real way forward, you have the Chinese and the Russians at the table, the Japanese for that matter. But they're not there."

War on the Korean peninsula

To be fair, Freeland herself acknowledged last month the negotiating table needs to first be set with a "campaign of international pressure [that] will lead to the best outcome for the whole world … which is a diplomatic path to a resolution of this crisis."

Nobody wants a war on the Korean peninsula. The consequences, as the U.S. Congressional Research Service pointed out last fall, would be staggering.

At some point, countries will hopefully have to move on and accept that North Korea is a de facto nuclear state and then they have to look at policies to contain that.- James Trottier, former Canadian diplomat

"Some estimates range from between 30,000 and 300,000 dead in the first days of fighting, given that [North Korea] artillery is thought by some to be capable of firing 10,000 rounds per minute at Seoul," said the analysis released on Nov. 7.

"Casualties would likely be significantly higher should non-conventional munitions or capabilities be used."

The California-based RAND Corporation think-tank pegged the economic cost of a conventional war on the Korean peninsula at 60 to 70 per cent of South Korea's annual GDP, which was $1.4 trillion in 2016.

'A de facto nuclear state'

Andrew Rasiulis, who used to be in charge of arms control policy at National Defence, said it's always been in Canada's interest to take a slightly different diplomatic tack than the Americans, and to be seen as a facilitator of dialogue on the world stage.

"It is in our interest to do that and it's not because we're goody two-shoes," he said. "We are really appreciated for that because sometimes we can go and do things the Americans can't."

But Rasiulis cautioned against "spouting rainbows" and putting too much "political veneer" on the tough days ahead.

Hook said Washington's goal at the conference, and by extension that of the international community, is to see that Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program "has been verifiably abandoned."

But that is never going to happen, said Trottier, whose diplomatic duties took him to North Korea as late as 2016.

"At some point, countries will hopefully have to move on and accept that North Korea is a de facto nuclear state and then they have to look at policies to contain that."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.