You have to give Canada's Trudeau government, and energetic Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, good marks for their initiative to co-host with the United States the conference on Tuesday in Vancouver on the North Korean crisis.
This will sound like ancient history to today's officials and politicians, but in the early 1990s Canada led (and the government financed) a group of academics and others from a number of regional countries to engage North Korean officials in a non-confrontational setting. This North Pacific Co-operative Security Dialogue was a unique "open door" for bringing North Koreans out of the isolation of Pyongyang and engaging them on security issues just as the country was embarking on its journey to develop nuclear weapons.
Our decision after a few years to end the dialogue removed Canadians from any further significant engagement on North Korea. As Canada's ambassador to Seoul at the time, I felt that while the initiative was small in the bigger scheme of things, it had real value. Left to run its course, the dialogue may have helped lead the North Korean regime on a less confrontational course, and reduced its obsessive fear for its own security.
Communication out of Ottawa about this week's conference has been very limited. Is this meeting the result of a decision by the government to look for a place where Canadian diplomacy can be helpful? If so, the search may have been an arduous one over the past months. The complexities of the situation on the Korean peninsula are daunting, the strategic stakes are higher than ever before and volatility is at an unprecedented level.
And the mood among players such as the United States and China (and North Korea) may not have been conducive to new ideas proposed by well-meaning outsiders.
At the fifteenth Canada-Korea Forum held in Canada this past October, a group of senior academics, former officials and others felt otherwise. Although the nuclear situation in the North was judged as very serious, our South Korean participants thought there was still time for Canada to work with other countries skilled in successful mediation and diplomacy to investigate new paths to defuse tensions: to find solutions that met the security interests of both South and North Korea, as well as the other key regional powers involved — China, the United States, Russia and Japan.
Perhaps the apparent choice of theme in Vancouver – to focus on the nuclear threat posed by the North – was the government's intention from the outset. If not, involving the Americans as co-hosts probably reduced the options considerably. In recent days, the American co-hosts have asserted that the conference will look at ways to bring additional pressure on North Korea to halt its journey to nuclear power status with an ICBM capability. This has provoked a predictably strong and unfortunate reaction from an uninvited China (and Russia).
The invitation list is problematic. Although it is one solution to the always-daunting challenge of "who to invite," it allows North Korea, China and Russia to argue that its "adversaries" from the United Nations-approved action almost 70 years ago are reconvening to discuss the future of the peninsula without them.
This raises exponentially the difficulty of getting co-operation from these players post-Vancouver.
As important as curbing North Korea's nuclear plans are, we should hope that foreign ministers at the Vancouver Conference, led by Freeland, will still take time behind closed doors to look at the options for diplomatic formats and longer-term solutions beyond the nuclear issue.
The Vancouver conference is an important initiative for Canadian diplomacy, particularly our reputation for effective re-engagement in Asia Pacific affairs and for finding ways forward on the Korean Peninsula. Much is at stake. The government should be congratulated for the courage of taking this on and for working with the United States as co-host. Let's hope, however, that the conference has an open door to new ideas, not a closed one.
This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.