Prepared Remarks before House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence on 'Canada's Abilities to Defend Itself and its Allies in the Event of an Attack by North Korea on the North American Continent'

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Click here for audio of the proceedings.


Colin Robertson

My remarks draw on 33 years of experience in the Canadian Foreign Service and, since then, my work as a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. I spent a week earlier this year in Seoul, as the guest of the Korea Foundation, meeting with Korean scholars and senior Korean defence and security officials.  

Let me address three questions:

  • Canadian participation in Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD)?
  • Our policy towards North Korea?
  • How can Canada contributes to nuclear non-proliferation?

Ballistic Missile Defence

It is time for Canada to participate in BMD as an insurance policy to shield Canadians should missiles come our way. Our European allies and Pacific partners employ it. So should we.

The Government dodged consideration of BMD in the recent Defence Policy Review (DPR). When I asked at the technical briefing at the launch of the DPR last May, I was told that the Government was staying with the policy adopted by the Martin and then Harper governments that we will not participate in BMD, but that the government is discussing defending North America against ‘all threats’ with the American government.  That would have to include BMD.

From discussions around the 2005 decision I understand that at that time the Government could not get adequate answers to three questions:

  • Does it work and how would BMD protect Canada?
  • How much participation would Canada have in what is essentially a U.S. managed system?
  • How much would it cost?

These are still good questions and the current Government should get these answers and share them with Canadians.

That said, based on the evidence presented to it, the Senate National Defence Committee unanimously recommended in June 2014 that Canada should participate in BMD.

Since then there is abundant evidence of North Korea’s improved capacity to both miniaturize a nuclear warhead and then project it by ballistic missile across continents. As then President George W Bush reportedly asked then Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006: ‘but what happens if a North Korean missile aimed at Los Angeles or Seattle winds up heading towards Calgary or Vancouver…don’t you want protection?’

While the US may protect a Canadian target near to a U.S. city, there can be no guarantee since the U.S. system is limited in size and the North Korean ICBM force of uncertain number. Unless we are inside the system – and making a contribution – we have no assurances even if the U.S. commander would wish to protect a Canadian target that is remote from a U.S. asset – think Edmonton or Calgary.

Consideration of Canadian engagement on BMD should cover all possible initiatives beyond the simply positioning of anti-missiles in Canada. These would range from a Government declaration that we acknowledge the missile threat to North America, to allocating additional Canadian Forces resources to NORAD, to equipping our naval assets with appropriate gear to detect missiles, to radar arrays in Canada, to writing a cheque to support research. In each case it will require more attention to security in Canada’s North.  

The U.S. is not asking us to join BMD. They did in 2005 and we said no. My sense is that if we were to ask now to be included they would probably agree but it will oblige them to make changes to a system in which they have invested billions. There would be a cost to Canada. So if we decide to join, we do it because it serves Canadian interests and protects Canadians, not because, as some suggest, we are doing the Americans a favour. On the contrary, they would be doing us a service having made the initial and ongoing investment.

Joining BMD would likely bring the continental BMD defence function under NORAD and NORTHCOM. Canada has participated in NORAD’s missile warning function for many years, and bringing BMD into it would strengthen the bi-national institution at the heart of Canada-US relations and the defence relationship in particular.

North Korea

I believe that the Government, as part of its commitment to active internationalism, needs to reconsider its current policy approach to North Korea. Diplomatic relations are not a seal of good housekeeping but rather the means by which advance Canadian interests and protect Canadians. Relations also allow us to bring insight, intelligence and a Canadian perspective to the diplomatic table.

The current policy of controlled engagement was adopted by the Harper Government in 2010 after a North Korean submarine torpedoed a South Korean warship in blatant disregard of its international obligations.

This policy limits engagement to discussion of (1) regional security concerns; (2) the human rights and humanitarian situation in North Korea; (3) inter-Korean relations; and (4) consular issues and this latter provision was how National Security Advisor Daniel Jean negotiated the recent exit from North Korea of Pastor Lim.

The Lim episode aside, it has meant we have virtually no contact with the Kim regime. There has not been an Ambassadorial visit to North Korea since 2010. In fact, no Canadian Ambassador has been accredited to North Korea since 2011. This contrasts with like-minded embassies in Seoul whose Ambassadors have regularly travelled to North Korea in the last 7 years. Seven EU countries also have resident Embassies in North Korea.  Our current policy helps no one, hinders communication, particularly at times when we most need it, and puts us at an information disadvantage with, and lessens our value to, our closest allies.

The authoritarian regime of Kim Jong-Un, continues to break international nuclear non-proliferation norms, despite repeated Security Council resolutions.

My view is that while any role for Canada would likely be limited, it would serve our interests to engage the North Koreans, thus enabling us to bring some intelligence or niche capacity to the table. My former foreign service colleague James Trottier who made 4 official visits to North Korea in 2015 and 2016 recently wrote an informed and useful piece in the Ottawa Citizen arguing for a combination of negotiations, incentives, sanctions and strengthened missile defence.

Some observations:

First, South Korea is our friend, fellow middle-power and the only nation in Asia with which we have a free trade agreement. It's a country that we should cultivate, keeping in mind that they understand and respect toughness in trade negotiations. 

South Korea has lived under the threat of bombardment by North Korea since the Armistice in 1953. Seoul, a city of ten million people, is 60 kilometers from the border and within easy range of conventional bombardment. After meeting with a very senior official in March he walked me to the elevator where I saw what I thought were a bunch of goggles. He looked at me and said “That’s for a chemical or biological gas attack. I don’t fear a nuclear bomb because what we have created in South Korea is just too valuable for Kim Jong-Un to destroy. He’d rather eliminate us so he can put his own people here.”

Second observation, Kim Jong-Un is ruthless, acting like something out of Game of Thrones, but his behaviour is rational and based on self-preservation.

For him and the 200,000 or so senior officials who benefit from his autocracy, a nuclear bomb is their insurance policy against the fate of Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. Kim will not give up his weapons.

Third, we will have to live with a nuclear North Korea. We need to establish a new equilibrium and accept the least offensive outcome if we are to realize objectives under the failed ‘strategic patience’ policy.

The time for a military intervention, if it ever existed, has probably passed, short of some sort of extraordinary intervention by the Chinese, the only power with real leverage in this situation. But, for now, China does not want a failed regime and the migrants it would bring.

So we must live with the situation. An engaged Canada could perhaps be helpful. We used our convening capacity in the lead-up to President Obama’s opening to Cuba. President Trump has said he would consider meeting Kim Jong-Un. Throw in Dennis Rodman, a Raptors game, and Niagara Falls and who knows what would happen.  The point is that to contain North Korea we have to think outside-of-the-box.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation

The fundamental issue with North Korea is nuclear proliferation. As part of our commitment to active internationalism, Canada should re-dedicate itself to the cause of nuclear non-proliferation.

For Canada, one of the world’s biggest producers of uranium, there is an important role to play in helping to secure the materials needed to make a nuclear weapon.

Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan account for more than two-thirds of global production. What if the three agreed to become permanent stewards of used uranium products?

We would permanently “own” our uranium and ensure that its waste, including radioactive and fissile material, was properly disposed of, perhaps in mines no longer in production. While this doesn’t solve the problem of existing nuclear waste, it would control most new supply.

The International Atomic Energy Agency would provide on-site accounting oversight and supervise the transportation of all uranium. Rates would reflect risks to make it commercially and politically viable.

Given their secure geography, Canada and Australia would have to take the lead in long-term global disposal. This will require leadership and explanation to persuade Canadians to take on this responsibility.

Saskatchewan is home to Canada’s uranium mines and the industry is one of the largest employers of indigenous people. People in Saskatchewan strongly support their industry. They recognize the value of nuclear medicine research, but they oppose nuclear waste storage. They will need to be convinced about the safety, security and economic returns of long-term stewardship.

Nuclear energy, which emits no carbon, is also a key piece of the solution to climate-change mitigation. China is betting heavily on nuclear energy in its migration from coal. France derives about 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear energy. Nuclear power supplies half of Ontario’s electricity.

The nuclear genie is out of the bottle. We must do a better job of handling its waste and curbing nuclear proliferation. As both a producer and user, Canada can take the lead in the control and containment of our own uranium.


We live in a world in disarray but we are not without assets and opportunities. I recommend that we look hard at ballistic missile defence as an insurance shield for Canadians, engage with North Korea to see if we can be helpful, and take a leadership role in controlling nuclear materials.


Andrea Charron

Thank you for the invitation. The questions of which this committee is seized are multifaceted.  I want to concentrate on Canada’s ability to defend itself and our allies in the event of an attack by North Korea assuming they attack with WMD rather than conventional weapons. The latter is very unlikely as the DPRK hasn’t the reach or freedom to roam for conventional weapons to be of use.  Therefore, the assumption is that an attack by the DPRK would be of a ballistic intercontinental variety and likely tipped with a nuclear device.

The implicit assumption also built into the questions is that Canada is currently defenseless now and has a role to play in defending other states against an ICBM threat posed by North Korea. These two assumptions need to be unpacked.  At the end of the day, I have no answer as to whether or not Canada should join US BMD and by this I assuming we mean the US ground-based midcourse defense mission (or GMD) that protects the US homeland, but I do have a series of questions that I think require answers which we may only get if we were to join.

First, are we defenseless?  Let’s begin with cruise missiles which are not currently the concern with North Korea but could be in the future and certainly for other states. The NORAD “tactics, techniques and procedures” or TTPs include a counter for cruise missile threats starting with airborne interception and fighter engagement in the high north. It is not assured that missile to missile, ie. a CF18 with an AIM-7 or AIM-120 – (radar guided) missile can defeat all adversaries missiles but NORAD would try.  NORAD, however, is looking at options to improve cruise missile defences for North America and this is an area that requires Canada’s attention.

When it comes to ballistic missiles, Canada does not have its own defences. We do have some coverage for BMD based on the geographical location of Canada’s population vis-à-vis the United States’ population but this because of coincidence not design. Therefore, we are assuming that the US will provide us coverage for “free”.  Now, I don’t think that the US would allow a BMD to hit Canada, its closest ally, if it was able to defeat the missile and not compromise US homeland protection. Not only would thousands of US citizens be potentially at risk but the downstream radiation pollution would be of tremendous concern to the US. US protection, however, is not assured (because of the trajectory of missile or perhaps the number of missiles launched overwhelm the system or counter measures, if developed in the future, could confuse the system) and because Canada is dependent on the good graces of the US and USNORTHCOM which is charged currently with defending the US homeland only.  Surprisingly, the US has always accepted the Canadian BMD caveat.  The assumption to date, and it is a big assumption, is that the US will continue to accept this caveat.

Second, is Canada obligated to defend its allies against an attack by North Korea?  By virtue of Article 5 of NATO, we are committed to collective defence of our NATO allies and via the NORAD binational agreement, the US and Canada have pledged to warn and defend NORTH AMERICA against air breathing threats.  For South Korea in particular, we are still a sending state party to the United Nations Command in South Korea and party to the armistice agreement and so we are expected to come to the aid of South Korea if attacked by North Korea. However, what is it that Canada could do in the event of a North Korean ICMB strike against North America?

NORAD’s role, were North Korea to launch a missile at the continental US or Canada, is to warn of the attack.  NORAD does not have nor has it had the role of defeating a ballistic missile.  This mission belongs to USNORTHCOM. The current GMD architecture is a system of systems involving several US combatant commands in which Canada has no decision-making standing although we contribute warning information and intelligence. 

Overall, the perennial Canadian objections to BMD have always rested on three key questions: 1) does it work; 2) is it worth the money; and 3) what effect might Canada joining have on global stability and international security?

On the first, the current US GMD system has never been tested for real thank goodness. (Yes Patriot, THAAD and Aegis systems have been tested but they are intended for theatre ballistic missile threats and are very different systems from the ground based interceptors (GBI) at Fort Greely and Vandenberg).

The US Missile Defense Agency would suggest that test results of the GBI are mixed but would also say that today’s interceptors are better than those first deployed in 2005.  The full details of the reliability of the system, however, are not likely to be revealed unless Canada signs on.

Second, to the cost.  GMD is enormously expensive. The US has already spent at least USD $ 40 billion on it. By comparison, our new defence policy is supposed to take us to CAD $ 32 billion in total defence spending by the end of the next decade. How much of that money is Canada prepared to divert from other priorities like the Canadian Surface Combatant or the New Fighter Aircraft to pay our share of North American ballistic missile defence? It may be money well spent if we think that defence against ballistic missiles especially from North Korea will be an ongoing concern and that the BMD system will be able to adapt to changing threats (not to mention potentially different adversaries).  As well, as many have argued, is it wise for Canada to continue to expect the US to pay for the lion’s share of the expenses to defend North America?  Perhaps, there are ways Canada can contribute, such as research and development (which would benefit Canadian companies and universities), that doesn’t mean a strict 50/50 split of expenses which has rarely ever been the case with the US. Perhaps there is R and D to which we can contribute (which would benefit Canadian companies and universities) but also as a Sending State to the United Nations Command in South Korea, perhaps there are additional actions we take as well.

And third, to global stability. Canada’s decision to join or not will have absolutely no effect on Kim Jung Un and his singular focus to achieve nuclear proliferation but it may on his choice of future targets. While the 3 perennial reasons to say no have remained static, North Korea’s ambitions have not. Ultimately, regardless of the position Canada takes there are what ifs. If Canada does not join BMD, and there is an attack on Canada, the Canadian public will want to know why we didn’t do anything and certainly allies will want to know why we were not protected.  If we say yes to BMD (and this assumes the US will accept our yes and we accept the conditions of joining), but nothing happens, Canadians will want to know why we joined?  If we say no and nothing happens, Canadians will conclude, it was the right decision.  But if we continue to say no, and the US is attacked then the US public will want to know where was Canada.

A perennial stalemate has been created that I don’t see changing especially with such a politically charged issue with many unknowns.


Rob Huebert

Dr. Huebert raised two points:

1. What is the nature of the problem?

  • North Korea is an absolute monarchy with only policy goal is maintenance and protection  of that monarchy through nuclear weapons;
  • They pose a direct and indirect threat to Canadian national security;
  • The Direct Threat :The problem with assuming that the US will shoot down any missile fired at North America is that the premise assumes that only one or two North Korean missiles will be fired:
    • The North Korean nuclear aremed missile threat is  a long-term problem, and not one that has come up in the last few months. It has been a problem that has developed over the last decade and  will be a persistent problem into the future. It will become more serious and dangerous as the North Koreans improve their missile technology and expand the number of missiles and nuclear warheads. One of the core problems that this creates specific to Canada is that the US will only has a limited number of interceptors. If in the long term (or even now) the North Koreans  have more missiles than we assumed, and so the US may decide to reserve the limited number of interceptors which they have in the event of an attack on North America;
    • The DPRK have adopted a strategy of focusing onthe Ameircan allies -RoK and Japan. They have threaten Japan and sunk South Korean vessels while not directly attacking the US They may, in the long-term, similarly target Canada  to demonstrate to the US that they can hit the US without actually hitting the US;
    • The Indirect Threat – Most Canadian commentators have focused almost exclusively on the threat scenario of a single missile strike out of the blue. There is a need to recognise that there  are a wide range of scenarios in which Canada could be threatened. Even a war on a conventional or chemical basis is an indirect and major threat to Canadian security, even if ICBMs are not utilized directly against North America. If war was to break out on the Korean Peninsula and lasted beyond days, it is possible that a situation develops in which either the North Koreans or Americans escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. In such a chaotic environment it is then possible to see a North Korean launch of all their long-range missiles at North America. The protection of a neutral Canada would not be at the forefront of American decision-makers. This would be why this would need to be prepared for in advance.

2. What should Canada be doing?

  • First: Canada needs to take part in BMD;
    • At the very least, if the DPRK fires multiple ICBMs, the Americans are not currently going to be thinking about saving Canadian cities, this needs to be changed now and not during an actual crisis
    • Second: Consider how we can participate with key democratic friends in the region – improved security arrangement with Republic of Korea (RoK), Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. For those advocating that Canada focus on a diplomatic solution, this is a much better use of Canada’s limited resources than wasting it’s efforts to talk to North Korea. Canada currently does not have direct relations with the North Koreans and it is unrealistic (and quite egotistic) to assume that the North Koreas would now give our diplomats any attention just because we are Canadians. Working with our friends and like-minded states in the region to contribute to a stronger regional security regime is a much better use of our very limited diplomatic capabilities in the region. DPRK only understands military force – reassure our friends (not officially allies) addresses longer-term problem with the regime. The DPRK has shown I only understands military force, so it is much better to focus on reassuring our friends.Third: Given the fact that the North Koreans found it easy to get missiles and nukes, the capability is likely to spread, and we may want to think about building a domestic ABM capability (like the Norwegians in their Aegis frigates) – we should look at getting capability in the maritime domain – only the US and Japanese truly have this capability and the Australians are about to begin getting it. We may need to look at what would be required to give the next surface combatant this capability.   

Conclusion: The DPRK is a growing threat to Canadian national security, but one that has been in place since the regime has come into power and  developed nuclear armed weapons. The problem will become more dangerous as time progresses. We cannot leave the protection of Canadian security to “hoping” the US will protect us. In any arrangement we will be a junior partner, but we must ensure that we are not an “afterthought”. This can only be achieved through a specific partnership with the US in the form of an arrangement in which we are officially connected into their operational plans.        

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