The Current

'An extraordinary moment': North Korea summit shows tug-of-war over how to deal with rogue state

A one-day summit in Vancouver will discuss three main options on quelling the threat from North Korea: increased diplomacy, stronger sanctions, or a pre-emptive strike.
The summit in Vancouver will discuss three main options: increased diplomacy, stronger sanctions, or a pre-emptive strike. (Jon Chol Jin/Associated Press)

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Not once, but twice in recent days have people received government messages informing them of their own imminent deaths.

First, residents of Hawaii were mistakenly told over the weekend that a missile was headed their way; then on Tuesday, the Japanese national broadcaster apologized after an incorrect alert saying North Korea had launched a missile and that citizens should evacuate.

The text message that people in Hawaii received at the weekend. (Tulsi Gabbard/Twitter)

In this atmosphere of heightened tensions, Canada and the United States are co-hosting a summit in Vancouver about how to defuse the threat from North Korea and  Kim Jong-un's nuclear program.

Twenty countries are represented, to discuss three main options: increased diplomacy, stronger sanctions or a pre-emptive strike.

Some key countries aren't at the table, most notably China, Russia — and North Korea itself.

But peace activists are hopeful that the meeting could lead to change.

"This is an extraordinary moment," Nan Kim, a member of the steering committee of the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea, tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"[It's] a time to step back and understand that we haven't been trying properly, as far as, we're here to promote or advocate for the diplomatic process."

Kim is in Vancouver as part of an all-women peace delegation, and hopes that having more women present at the meetings will provide a push for diplomacy. She points out that research has shown that including women's peace groups in negotiations results in both more peace agreements, and more durable ones.

North Korea releases video of most recent missile launch

6 years ago
Duration 1:15
Clip shows leader Kim Jong-un greeting soldiers, missile on mobile truck, launch from several angles

Kim is encouraged by renewed diplomatic activity between North and South Korea, and would like to see other countries focus on diplomacy instead of sanctions, which she says just hurt North Korean civilians. She also hopes this meeting makes clear that the military option is not really on the table.

But Danny Lam, a defence analyst, says there is often a misunderstanding of North Korea's intentions when there are calls for more diplomatic talks.

We have a very, very short window… where we have a viable military option that does not involve mass casualties.- Danny Lam

"The regime has very clearly told us over 70 years that their goal is to kick the United States out of the Korean peninsula, then reunify the Koreas by force on their terms, and then they expect to claim compensation from everyone that has ever wronged them," Lam tells Tremonti. "That is the biggest problem."

Lam says now is the time for the world to exert maximum diplomatic pressure on North Korea, backed by the threat of military action.

"We have a very, very short window of perhaps a year… where we have a viable military option that does not involve mass casualties," he says. "It's either now or never."

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will welcome foreign leaders including U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In today's meeting, Kathryn Weathersby sees echoes of 1950, when the Truman administration in the U.S. talked about using nuclear weapons against North Korea or China. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee flew to Washington to express his country's and Europe's concerns.

"Those talks… were important," Weathersby, a professor of history at Korea University in Seoul, tells Tremonti. "They did serve a restraining role on the U.S. administration. And I think the same thing can happen with today's meeting. And it's terribly important that that happen."

They are not suicidal. They understand that, and they are a bit bewildered that others don't understand that.- Kathryn Weathersby 

But she points out that North Korea's perspective on the meeting might be quite different.

"North Korea is very concerned, according to reports we are hearing now, about preparations within the American military for action on the Korean peninsula," she says. "So for this meeting to be held largely among the countries who had participated in the UN command can be seen as alarming, if they are anticipating that this will be a mechanism for those countries to give approval to an American military strike."

Kim Jong-un and his government will be concerned that the summit is a prelude to a military strike. (AFP/Getty Images/KCNA via KNS)

Weathersby says that her research into North Korea's intentions for its nuclear program suggests the country does not intend to use the weapons offensively, but rather for their own security, in the same way other nuclear states do.

"For them to use them offensively would be a suicidal act, and they are not suicidal," says Weathersby. "They understand that, and they are a bit bewildered that others don't understand that."

Weathersby brings up another historical comparison — that of the American-led invasion of Iraq. She says that what was seen as an easy toppling of a bad regime in Iraq has had ripple effects throughout the region and the world — and cautions against viewing a North Korea strike in the same way.

"The damage caused by a military attack on North Korea will similarly ripple outward," says Weathersby. "But Northeast Asia is a much denser region — denser in population, denser in power — so the consequences will be even greater."

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman, Howard Goldenthal, and Liz Hoath.