In The Media

Olympic detente eases North Korean tensions

by Brice Campion-Smith (feat. Marius Grinius)

Toronto Star
January 12, 2018

OTTAWA—It’s a bit of Olympic détente, a case of sports diplomacy that has eased nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula.

After nerve-rattling missile tests, threats of fire and fury, and high school taunts between Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un over the size of their nuclear triggers, the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in South Korean city of Pyeongchang have sparked a welcome respite — and perhaps an opening to dialogue.

For now, the United States and South Korea have agreed to postpone military exercises — viewed as provocative by North Korea — until after next month’s competitions.

This week, officials from North and South Korea met for the first time in years and agreed that North Korean athletes would take part in the games.

As Canada and the United States prepare to host a summit to discuss the North Korea crisis, Shin Maeng-ho, South Korea’s ambassador to Canada, sees it all as cause for optimism — but strikes a note of caution.

“This is a first step. We have a long way to go. We should not drink champagne too early. We have no illusion on North Korea. We have been deceived before,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland are co-hosting Tuesday’s gathering of foreign ministers in Vancouver. According to Brian Hook, Tillerson’s director of policy planning, the meeting is meant to discuss ways to keep up the diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea.

“There is growing evidence that our maximum pressure campaign is being felt in North Korea,” Hook said this week.

The agenda will include talk of new measures and steps to enforce existing sanctions, perhaps through maritime interdiction to screen vessels headed to North Korea for illicit shipments barred by United Nations sanctions.

Speaking to the Star on Friday, Shin said the nations gathering at the summit must strike a balance between stiff economic sanctions and a willingness to talk as they attempt to shut down North Korea’s nuclear program.

The Vancouver waterfront may seem like a curious locale to plot such strategy but academic Roland Paris said Canada is doing Tillerson a favour by helping showcase international solidarity for the pressure campaign.

“He’s clearly trying to pursue the diplomatic and economic option to the maximum in the hopes of creating the conditions for a negotiated outcome,” said Paris, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and former foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Marius Grinius, a former diplomat who served as ambassador to both South Korea and North Korea just over a decade ago, said the meeting could also signal Canada’s intention to become more involved in the North Korea issue.

The previous Conservative government in 2010 adopted a policy of “controlled engagement,” severely restricting its dealings with North Korea to just a few areas.

“Canada is now ready to get back and Vancouver is the vehicle,” Grinius said in an interview.

More curious is the summit’s guest list, made up of so-called “sending countries” that contributed troops to the United Nations force in the Korean War. Russia and China, the two nations with arguably the greatest sway over the regime, will not be there, making it unlikely the Vancouver meeting gathering will produce a significant breakthrough, Paris said.

“There’s no expectation that this meeting in Vancouver will be where a resolution to the crisis is going to be discussed. The key players aren’t there,’ he said.

But academic George Lopez said the potential for the summit should not be underestimated as it brings together key players such as the United States, South Korea and Japan for the first time since the crisis has escalated.

“This is a very high-level meeting and it’s very important and it has potential to be successful,” said Lopez, professor emeritus of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, who served on the UN panel of experts responsible for monitoring the implementation of sanctions.

Lopez said recent developments going into the Vancouver summit “lessen the need for this to be yet another thorn in the side of North Koreans and maybe gives it more diplomatic opportunity.

“The sports diplomacy may create the environment for how you talk about getting to good talks,” Lopez said.

The goal, ostensibly, is to get the regime to give up its nuclear capabilities. But now that North Korea has developed the weapons and the missiles to carry them, it’s not likely to give it up, experts say. That means the West will have to confront the reality of a nuclear North Korea.

“I think that they will continue to develop their nuclear and missile capability . . . I don’t think they are going to negotiate it away,” Grinius said.

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