Ottawa Deploys Public — and Discreet — Diplomatic Efforts on North Korea

Subtlety obscures a surprisingly robust and active Canadian diplomatic effort to mediate with North Korea.

Prime Minister Trudeau, December 5, 2017. Flickr/Office of the Prime Minister of Canada

What is Canada’s contribution to stability and peace in East Asia? I was confronted with this question twice in early 2017.

At a conference in Tokyo, where I sat between speakers from the United Kingdom and the United States who were asked the same question about their respective countries, my answer was much shorter than that of my colleagues.

Much like in Ottawa a few weeks later, where I spoke to ambassadors from the Asia-Pacific region, I said that despite Ottawa’s oft-reiterated ambition to pivot towards Asia, Canada stubbornly remains an Atlantic power. It has been repeatedly pulled back into the United States’ orbit even when it wants to extract itself from it, and it is fundamentally attached to its North Atlantic allies and institutions. This leaves very few resources for the Pacific front, where most of Canada’s efforts nowadays are trade-related.

But on the North Korean crisis, a series of declarations, announcements and discrete meetings in Asia over the last months show that Ottawa has decided to play a significant diplomatic role.

The most important development happened in late November, when Canada announced that it would host in early 2018 an international meeting on North Korea in partnership with the United States. A meeting of this magnitude — where Pyongyang is not expected to be invited — “hasn’t been done before”, one Canadian official said to the Canadian Press. “It’s been years since diplomatic conversations went dormant… This is part of an effort to involve all the players who should be involved… It helps give legs to a diplomatic solution.”

“On the North Korean crisis…Ottawa has decided to play a significant diplomatic role.”

With this international meeting in sight, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Canada on December 19 was planned in part to map out a strategy for dealing with North Korea.

All this followed Justin Trudeau’s declaration that Canada could play a key role to defuse the tensions with North Korea via Cuba. “Can we pass along messages through surprising conduits? There hasn’t been huge amount of discussion around that, but it was a topic of conversation when I met President Raul Castro last year,” said Trudeau, answering a question after an unrelated speech in Charlottetown, “these are the kinds of things where Canada can play a role that the United States has chosen not to play this past year.”

As communist regimes, Cuba and North Korean do have “decent diplomatic relations”, as Justin Trudeau said. In fact, North Korea’s foreign minister had just landed in Havana a few days before for an official visit to the Caribbean island.

But two other low-key events suggest that Ottawa may have been more deeply engaged diplomatically on the North Korean crisis.

Last August, KCNA, the North Korean news agency, was first to announce that Daniel Jean, Trudeau’s national security adviser, was in Pyongyang with a Canadian delegation. We soon learned that the Canadian officials were there to negotiate the release of Hyeon Soo Lim, a Canadian pastor who had been sentenced to hard labour for life in December 2015 for attempting to overthrow the regime. He was released a few days later.

Even though the visit was officially about pastor Lim’s release, the Canadian delegation may have had the opportunity, while in Pyongyang, to discuss other issues regarding the crisis on the Korean peninsula.

“Canada can play a role that the United States has chosen not to play this past year.”

Last August, KCNA, the North Korean news agency, was first to announce that Daniel Jean, Trudeau’s national security adviser, was in Pyongyang with a Canadian delegation. We soon learned that the Canadian officials were there to negotiate the release of Hyeon Soo Lim, a Canadian pastor who had been sentenced to hard labour for life in December 2015 for attempting to overthrow the regime. He was released a few days later.

Even though the visit was officially about pastor Lim’s release, the Canadian delegation may have had the opportunity, while in Pyongyang, to discuss other issues regarding the crisis on the Korean peninsula.

Less known, though, was the presence of a Canadian official at the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue in Mongolia’s capital last June. According to Mongolian and Canadian sources, Christopher Burton, Director for Northeast Asia and Oceania at Global Affairs, attended this meeting whose major partners are Mongolia, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, the U.S… and North Korea.

What was said during this meeting dedicated to security issues in Northeast Asia was not made public. This track 1.5 event — mixing state and non-state actors from participating countries — is held under the Chatham House rule.

Has Mongolia been a “surprising conduit” through which “Canada passed along messages” about or even to North Korea, to use Justin Trudeau’s words? Global Affairs Canada confirms that “one official represented Canada” at this fourth UB Dialogue and that “the participants discussed security-related questions regarding the Korean peninsula,” but without any more details.

That this kind of diplomatic activity happens in Mongolia is not surprising, though. The landlocked country, which brands itself as “Northeast Asia’s Geneva”, is one of the very few states in the world to enjoy as friendly relations with North Korea as with South Korea, Japan, the United States and Canada. Tokyo, for instance, has taken advantage several times of this ‘neutral’ ground to hold intergovernmental consultations with North Korea.

Ottawa has played a mediating role in the international arena on numerous occasions. The most spectacular happened a long time ago, in 1956, when Lester B. Pearson’s diplomatic efforts through the UN on the Suez crisis helped avert a third world war. More recently, in 2014, Canada hosted discrete Cuba-U.S. meetings when officials from both countries were working on a rapprochement.

Now, is Canada trying to play a similar role on the North Korean crisis? It certainly looks that way.

Author

Jean-Frédéric Légaré-Tremblay
A fellow at The Montreal Centre for International Studies (CERIUM), Jean-Frédéric Légaré-Tremblay specializes in international affairs. A fellow of Action Canada (2011-2012) and former public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., Jean-Frédéric Légaré-Tremblay taught international relations at the University of Montreal and the University of Sherbrooke after studying European Institutions at the Université libre de Bruxelles.