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Time for a New Approach to the North Korea Problem. How About Canada?

Chan Mo Ku Headshot

Canada, with its diplomatic experience as an honest broker and history of track two engagement with North Korea, is well-positioned to try its hand at mediation. Former Canada Institute Intern Chan Mo Ku writes on that potential.

This article originally appeared in The Diplomat

In the 30 years since North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the United States has implemented a variety of strategies to curb Pyongyang’s behavior. These efforts, which range from the Clinton-era Agreed Framework to the Trump administration’s bilateral summits, have failed to dissuade the Kim regime from testing its missile and weapon of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities. With crises emerging around the world in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, an exhausted Washington finds itself increasingly stretched thin with a North Korea problem that is yet to be resolved.

Perhaps it is time to consider an alternate approach. What if countries outside of the Six-Party Talks – and with less conflicted interests in the region – take the lead in engaging with North Korea?

Canada, with its diplomatic experience as an honest broker and history of track two engagement with North Korea, can be a suitable candidate. Leadership on the North Korea problem would be a timely maneuver as Ottawa pushes to increase its involvement in the Indo-Pacific. Taking initiative on one of the region’s largest problems would boost Canada’s profile as a Pacific power, with potentially positive spillover effects.

Canada’s Position: Honest Broker from Outside

The fact that Canada is situated geographically and politically distant from the Korean Peninsula allows the country to serve as an honest outside broker. Compared to the members of the Six-Party Talks (2003-2009), all of whom are deeply interlinked with critical geopolitical interests in East Asia, Canada’s relatively neutral status in the region enables it to take a third party approach.

Andrei Lankov noted that North Korea perceives Canada as a “non-threatening” country. Lankov pointed to Pyongyang’s willingness to send its students there as proof of the Kim regime’s relative openness to Canada compared to its adversarial position toward the United States and regional U.S. allies. This reputation opens avenues for dialogue, exchange programs, and potential cooperation in various fields, allowing Canada to play a unique role on the Korean Peninsula.

Former Canadian aid worker Erich Weingartner also suggested that Canada can act as a “psychologist” on the North Korean issue. He argued that steps such as re-appointing an ambassador and looking for other ways to exchange people and ideas, be it through sports, arts, or academics, might encourage North Korea to communicate better with the outside world, which may result in constructive adjustments to the repressive system.

Canada’s case is further strengthened by its record as an international broker, peacekeeper, and contributor to international organizations, as demonstrated through its involvement in Egypt and Mali. Canadian leadership also contributed to the construction of the United Nations and other institutions of multilateralism, and the country still plays a major role in promoting human rights in the international arena. These experiences have honed Canada’s diplomatic capabilities, strengthening relationships that can facilitate dialogue. 

Canada Is Not a Stranger to North Korean People or Policy

Canada’s approach to addressing the North Korean issue has been multifaceted, focusing on two key dimensions. First, Ottawa uses a “people-first” approach, which emphasizes human rights concerns in North Korea and involves providing humanitarian aid. This aspect reflects Canada’s commitment to addressing the welfare and rights of North Korean citizens. Second, Canada addresses the security dimension, particularly concerning Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. This is primarily managed through the imposition of sanctions and strict enforcement measures, aimed at reducing North Korea’s WMD ambitions and ensuring regional stability.

Given Canada’s history of dual-policy implementation in relation to North Korea, the country is significantly involved in both humanitarian and security aspects of the issue. This involvement demonstrates Canada’s leverage on the North Korean problem, its affluent diplomatic knowledge in both dimensions, and its capability to gain trust from different stakeholders and perspectives.

For security reasons, the Canadian government has also been at the forefront of international efforts to curb the Kim regime’s belligerent posturing. Canada was proactive in joining economic sanctions against North Korea following the United Nations Act in 2006 and Special Economic Measures Act in 2011. Since 2018, Canada has periodically dispatched troops and CP-140 Aurora aircraft to identify suspected maritime sanctions evasion activities as part Operation NEON. Canadian Armed Force members are currently serving in the Korean Peninsula as the country participates as a member of the United Nations Command. In fact, in 2018, then-Lieutenant General Wayne Eyre, now the chief of the Defense Staff of Canada, became the first non-U.S. deputy commander of the United Nations Command. These activities demonstrate Canada’s keen interest in North Korea and desire to discourage the malign behaviors of its leadership.

On the other hand, Canada has remained connected with the Korean Peninsula through continuous efforts to engage with Pyongyang, too. For instance, there have been efforts across Canada to raise awareness about the humanitarian aspects of the North Korean problem. Canadian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Han Voice and First Steps have initiated campaigns to address famine in North Korea and raise awareness of human rights violations by the Kim regime. Canada’s Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights wrote a 2016 report that highlights what Canada can do to assist North Korean refugees. Humanitarian assistance has been a major policy tool in this regard, with Ottawa providing around CA$40 million of assistance to North Korea through international organizations such as U.N. World Food Program or UNICEF since 2005. 

Similarly, Canadian academia has also demonstrated continued dedication to work with North Korean scholars, enhance mutual understanding, and facilitate human capacity building. For example, the Canada-DPRK Knowledge Partnership Program (KPP) established by the University of British Columbia invites North Korean scholars to Canada with the goal of developing track two exchanges and sharing knowledge to improve the living conditions of North Korean people. There was also another engagement in 2018 where North Korean farmers visited Manitoba to share agricultural knowledge and build relationships.

Although there are concerns over whether Canada has the means to play mediator in the Korean Peninsula, given that bilateral relations reportedly deteriorated under the Harper government, recent documents indicate that the Trudeau government has been restoring engagement with Pyongyang. A 2020 article by the Globe and Mail revealed that senior Canadian officials held discreet meetings with their counterparts from North Korea in 2018, which led to a strategic plan in 2019 for diplomatic re-engagement, including the possibility of re-opening an embassy in Pyongyang.

Canada’s Benefits: Geopolitics, Geoeconomics, and Security

Active engagement on the North Korean problem will offer several benefits for Canada, too. 

In the era of competition between the United States and China, Canada has frequently been excluded from geopolitical coalitions or partnerships. Australia, which is also a U.S. ally in the Pacific, was invited to join the Quad and the Australia-U.K.-U.S. (AUKUS) security pact, both of which Canada was overlooked for. As a result of these snubs, Canada has attempted to re-engage with its neighbors in the region, as shown through its Indo-Pacific Strategy and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s suggestion of a four-way security framework in the Northern Pacific. Engagement on the Korean Peninsula could create a path for further cooperation with regional partners and strengthen Ottawa’s geopolitical presence.

Similarly, leadership on North Korea issues may also bring geoeconomic benefits. Whereas Canada has traditionally focused on ties with historic partners in North America and Europe, Asia presents a significant economic opportunity to diversify Canadian supply chain access and expand global trade networks. Canada’s new Indo-Pacific strategy states that “[t]he Indo-Pacific region will play a critical role in shaping Canada’s future over the next half-century,” and highlights North Korean provocation as one of the strategic challenges in the region. Resolving the North Korean nuclear issue can not only strengthen stability of the Asian markets but also enhance Canada’s geoeconomic relations with its regional counterparts.

Lastly, there is a persistent security risk for Canada as long as Pyongyang maintains its nuclear missile capability. North Korea’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) is sophisticated and its new ICBM reportedly has a range of over 15,000 kilometers, which includes territory in Canada. By actively engaging, Canada can mitigate potential risks to its national, regional, and global security.

Considering all factors above, taking initiative in North Korea is a wise option for Canada that not only aligns with Canadian values but also offers geopolitical, geoeconomic, and security benefits. In a time when the world needs alternative methods to resolve the North Korean problem, Canada is uniquely positioned as a non-threatening actor to Pyongyang with a strong reputation as an honest broker and continued record of engagement with North Korea.

About the Author

Chan Mo Ku Headshot

Chan Mo Ku

Former Staff Assistant Intern, Canada Institute
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Canada Institute

The mission of the Wilson Center's Canada Institute is to raise the level of knowledge of Canada in the United States, particularly within the Washington, DC policy community.  Research projects, initiatives, podcasts, and publications cover contemporary Canada, US-Canadian relations, North American political economy, and Canada's global role as it intersects with US national interests.  Read more