People look on from inside of a trolleybus as it passes by the venue of a ruling party congress in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

People look on from inside of a trolleybus as it passes by the venue of a ruling party congress in Pyongyang,
North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

As  the possibility of nuclear sabre rattling on the Korean peninsula edges closer to reality, Elliot Cho sees a possibility for Canada to return to a once-familiar role of creating the peace

By: Elliot Cho | May 16, 2016


The tragic fate of Mr. John Ridsdel has revealed that the Canadian government is ill-prepared to protect Canadian lives overseas. As a person of Korean descent, I feel as if I am obligated to write about the danger of North Korean provocation for the Canadians residing in South Korea.

Under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, North Korea has relentlessly continued to improve its nuclear weapon. Since 2006, North Korea has already conducted four nuclear tests. Furthermore, North Korea is rigorously improving the capability to deliver the nuclear weapon to its target. A number of reports suggest that another nuclear test is imminent.

North Korea has been subjected to an unprecedented level of sanctions. Despite the multilateral efforts to discourage Kim from developing nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that he will give up his ambition to have North Korea recognized as a nuclear power.

North Korean weapon development has annoyed the United States for a long time. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations had considered launching an air strike on North Korean nuclear facilities to prevent any further improvements in North Korean nuclear capability. The Obama administration has maintained its policy of “strategic patience.”

Unfortunately, the policy has done little but to give more time for North Korea to continue its weapon development. North Korea has not only tested intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), it is now testing submarine-launching ballistic missile (SLBM). Although these weapons may seem rudimentary when compared to what the U.S. has, a rogue state possessing a nuclear delivery system that can be launched anywhere in the sea is enough to vex the White House.

Would the hostility between the North and the South mean that Canadians in the region are facing grave risks? In most cases, a direct threat to Canadian lives can only occur if a Canadian citizen voluntarily travels to North Korea. North Korean authorities have been hostile to anyone who seeks to introduce Western cultures— especially religion— to its people. The case of a Korean-Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, being sentenced to hard labour in North Korean labour camp, shows that North Korea would not take it easy on foreign nationals—even if the purpose of the visit is to provide humanitarian aid to North Koreans.

As for the Canadians staying in South Korea, the risk is very low. There were times when small units of the North Korean Special Forces frequently infiltrated areas near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)—the border between the North and the South— and wreak havoc in small villages near the DMZ. Fortunately, the number of border skirmishes have reduced significantly over the years.

Nevertheless, the areas near the DMZ are still dangerous. The most recent case was the North Korean artillery bombarding the Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. If the full-scale conflict ever occurs and the North Korean military launches an all-out artillery strike to the South, many lives would be lost. Many South Korean cities are located within the effective range of North Korean artillery. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is no exception. A city where more than a quarter of the population resides is one of the most densely populated city in the world.

As more Canadians travel to East Asian countries like South Korea to study or seek employment, it is essential for the Canadian government to expand its capacity to safeguard Canadians in the region. Although we now have apps that can inform Canadians about dangerous conditions in the region that they are traveling, it is necessary to review Canada’s long-term foreign policy with nations in the region.

Rather than hoping people will keep themselves out of danger by sending warnings via smartphone, our government should show more interest in taking part in the effort to maintain peace in the Korean peninsula. Now is the time to think carefully about how Canada can serve as an ‘honest broker,’ mediating the conflicting interests between South Korea and its allies (the U.S. and Japan) and North Korea and its friends (China and Russia).

The world we live in today is dangerous and unstable. Countries that we once thought ‘relatively’ safe—such as Ukraine and Syria—have been suffering from wars that none had predicted. Even a country like South Korea should not be taken as an exception.

Elliot Cho is former Junior Research Fellow at NATO Association of Canada and is a member of the Saskatoon branch of the Canadian International Council.

What the hostility between North and South Korea means for Canadians