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Reality check: How useful is a meeting on North Korea if China and Russia won’t show?

by Monique Scotti (feat. Marius Grinius)

Global News
January 15, 2018

In an effort to build and maintain a united front, representatives from a number of countries are arriving in Canada Monday to begin talks about the ongoing nuclear threat posed by North Korea.

But when Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson welcome delegates from 20 nations to Vancouver, there will be two notable absentees: China and Russia.

In spite of their physical proximity to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal — and China’s close economic ties to the so-called Hermit Kingdom — neither of those countries has been supportive of the jointly hosted summit.

In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. China has openly expressed concerns that the meetings could prove destabilizing, criticizing the decision to invite nations that fought in support of South Korea during the Korean War.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov went so far as to call the event “destructive.”

The U.S. state department, meanwhile, has maintained that neither country was invited to begin with, regardless of the fact that they are both involved in the so-called Six-Party Talks aimed at finding a peaceful resolution.

So how useful are these talks without China and Russia?

Canada’s former ambassador to the Korean peninsula, Marius Grinius, defended the decision not to include them this past weekend.

“They’ve expressed their unhappiness with that meeting,” he said. “But my suspicion is that, in actual fact, any meeting about North Korea where they do not participate, where they do not have a veto or a threat of a veto, makes them unhappy. And certainly, from my perspective, they have a lot more to do to implement the UN sanctions that are supposedly in place.”

It’s those sanctions that are expected to be at the heart of Tuesday’s talks. The UN Security Council approved new punitive measures last month that seek to further limit North Korea’s access to refined petroleum products, crude oil and its earnings from workers abroad.

There has also been talk of the possible interception of ships carrying North Korean goods.

On Monday, officials confirmed to Reuters that the meetings would focus, at least in part, on how to ensure countries fully implement the established sanctions. The idea would be that if everyone cracks down together and consistently, there will be enough economic pressure to force Kim Jong Un to negotiate.

But that’s a hard thing to ensure without China in the room, experts say, since the vast majority of North Korea’s trade is conducted via that country.

Paul Evans, a professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in Asia-Pacific security, said that with 20 foreign ministers in Vancouver, all of whom want to be heard, the meeting is unlikely to produce concrete results.

The absence of China and Russia is also a drawback, he acknowledged. While there may be a consensus that sanctions are necessary, the international community still needs to decide how it can pursue diplomatic solutions at the same time.

“One of the big questions after the meeting is how we’re going to continue to work with China and Russia in particular,” Evans said.

Still, Evans said, the meeting is a good opportunity to get some clarity on where the Americans stand in terms of diplomacy, sanctions and possible military action. Canada also needs to better define the role it hopes to play, he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, brushed off any suggestion that the meetings were a wasted exercise last week following a cabinet retreat in Ontario.

“The international community is playing an extremely important role in diffusing, de-escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula,” Trudeau said.

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