How the Vancouver Conference on North Korea will both succeed and fail



by James Trottier

Ottawa Citizen
January 7, 2018

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced in Ottawa that the United States and Canada will co-host a conference of Foreign Ministers on North Korea in Vancouver on Jan. 16. On Jan. 1, meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offered to talk with South Korea, which responded positively.

Unfortunately, the Vancouver Conference will fail to achieve its stated objective of persuading North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program. However, the initiative will strengthen the hand of those within the Donald Trump administration and beyond (including South Korea) who are advocating for diplomatic rather than military action.

The conference can be expected to reaffirm sanctions and policies that have not worked, rather than discuss new approaches. In this regard, it is unfortunate that China is not among the listed invitees. Without China, the conference risks being an echo chamber of the like-minded.

The premise of the conference – to force North Korea to the negotiating table and persuade it to denuclearize – is fatally flawed, since the U.S. insists on North Korea’s commitment to denuclearize as a pre-condition for any discussions between the two. It’s a commitment North Korea will never make. Ironically, then, it may be South Korea itself, fresh off its own talks with North Korea, that sows the seeds of discord over the hardline approach of the U.S.

Canada may simply be a host rather than a substantive policy catalyst at the conference. Even worse, the description of Tillerson’s visit as an opportunity “to map out a strategy for dealing with North Korea’s growing nuclear threat” suggests that Canada may risk being drawn into a closer alignment with a failed U.S. policy – driven by the whims of an erratic president.

Nor will Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s suggestion of a Cuban role lead to progress. North Korea has not listened to China; it certainly would not be persuaded by Cuba to denuclearize even if Cuba were willing to engage in such messaging.

The conference is also undermined because Tillerson has only a tenuous hold on his position. The White House loses no opportunity to undercut his attempts at diplomacy on North Korea. Some may think that this is a deliberate game of “good cop/bad cop” but in reality, this seems more a case of “confused cop,” reflecting a fundamental disagreement inside the Trump administration on how to deal with North Korea.

Confusion is never good in foreign policy, especially in such a volatile situation, exacerbated by loose talk in Washington of pre-emptive strikes. Such threats will not intimidate North Korea but will deepen its distrust and may prompt rash action if it feels in imminent danger. It also provides North Korea a wedge with which to divide South Korea from the U.S. by offering talks to the South without American nuclear pre-conditions.

U.S. policymakers are divided between those such as Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, who support diplomacy, and Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, who views the threat of military action and possibly even a limited military strike (in the risky hope that this will not prompt a massive North Korean response) as the only means of persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. Both sides in this debate are vying for the attention of the mercurial Trump, who himself is inclined to a hardline position.

Seen in this context, the Vancouver Conference will assist in shoring up those who support a diplomatic approach, buying time for the eventual development of a new approach.

A new approach would begin with a quiet recognition that North Korea is already a de facto nuclear state; that North Korea considers its nuclear program to be vital to its survival and will not trade it for sanctions relief; that China will only press North Korea so far; and that for a variety of reasons, sanctions have a limited impact on North Korea.

Despite sanctions, the latter’s economy grew by 3.9 per cent in 2016, according to South Korea’s Bank of Korea, and the latest round of sanctions include significant loopholes insisted on by China and Russia.

An alternative policy would turn from futile efforts to persuade North Korea to denuclearize towards de-escalation and containment strategies – including pressing North Korea to limit its arsenal and capacity with a mixture of diplomatic and economic pressure, incentives, military preparedness and security guarantees for regional allies. How to prevent further nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia and beyond needs to be addressed. This involves discussions directly with North Korea.

The U.S. and its allies will not be ready to discuss the possibility of such a shift in Vancouver. So, in the meanwhile, North Korea will continue to test and seek to divide South Korea from the Americans; threats will be exchanged; and the impasse will continue with the risk of miscalculation, conflict and unintended consequences.

James Trottier is a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former career Canadian diplomat who directed the political/economic (diplomatic) programs at the Canadian Embassies in South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines and also served at the Permanent Mission of Canada to the UN in New York. He was accredited to North Korea and led four Canadian diplomatic delegations to North Korea in 2015 and 2016. He also served as a diplomatic liaison officer to US/UN Forces in South Korea.

Image credit: Ahn Young-joon/AP

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