[Viewpoint] Canada’s role in North Korea

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[Viewpoint] Canada’s role in North Korea

There is much discussion about the impact the death of Kim Jong-il will have in North Korea, on the Korean Peninsula, particularly whether Kim Jong-un will successfully hold onto the reins and ensure in some form or another that the North Korean regime does not die with the “dear leader.”

In this fragile transitional period interested state and non-state actors alike are re-evaluating their approaches to North Korea. As a Canadian, I believe that Canada’s participation in the Korean War and its once lauded history of engagement to achieve peace and stability makes it worth considering what role Canada has played recently in North Korea, and how it is likely to respond to the new era there.

Most of the possible leadership scenarios in the transitional period will still require the international community continuing to deal with the challenges that Kim Jong-il’s North Korea presented. Thus far, Western prescriptions for the “North Korea problem” have mostly been big power centric because they tend to highlight the importance of the U.S., China, Japan and Russia and neglect the potential for middle powers to contribute.

But these approaches have largely failed to achieve the varied ends they were designed to bring about. Anticipation is brewing over what can come if a reformist agenda emerges out of power transition, but this writer is not holding his breath. In order to achieve lasting stability on the peninsula middle powers and non-state entities must be prepared to take an active role.

Canada’s participation in the Korean War was somewhat unwilling and only resulted from international pressure; and even during the war Canada tried hard unsuccessfully to persuade the U.S. to refrain from crossing the DMZ and making the push towards China, and spent the rest of the time opposing the use of atomic weapons and other American aggressions. One of the primary lessons to come out of this period for Canada was that its middle power status would make it challenging to affect significant change in a bipolar world.

But the world and Canada’s place in it has changed; throughout most of the cold war period it adapted to the bipolar reality by pursuing a foreign policy focused on projecting Canadian sovereignty and values of peace, democracy and human rights abroad, rather than trying to tell the big powers what to do. Yet, Canada has demonstrated an unwillingness to get engaged in these ways in Korea. Has it been trying to avoid being drawn into another Korean conflict? What is motivating Canada’s North Korea policy?

Although the chances are slim for Canada to get a seat at the negotiation table over the North’s nuclear weapons, if those talks resume, Canada could take other constructive steps by coordinating humanitarian efforts and cultural, economic and sporting exchanges with North Korea. Critics will say that Pyongyang is likely to back off as soon as it smells foreign influence.

But Canada is not the U.S. and North Korea is unlikely to respond to such overtures with its typical knee jerk arrogance and by cranking up the juche, or self-reliance, megaphone that we often see in Pyongyang’s dealings with Washington and Seoul. The proof is in the pudding - six North Koreans recently arrived in Canada to study topics related to international capitalism at the University of British Columbia. The government should be following up to reinforce political ties.

Instead, the Canadian government has committed firmly to nuclear nonproliferation, and endorsed nonproliferation agreements expecting North Korea to fall in line. Canada’s response to the Cheonan incident was to break diplomatic ties with Pyongyang (after finally forming them in 2001) and impose sanctions. Canada then boycotted the UN Conference on Disarmament (the U.S. did not) simply because North Korea was chairing it; a clear indication that the newly re-elected Conservative government will pursue a further disengaged North Korea policy than previous governments.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s official response to Kim’s passing was “Kim Jong-il will be remembered as the leader of a totalitarian regime who violated the basic rights of the North Korean people for nearly two decades,” and “we urge North Korea to close this sad chapter in its history and to work once more toward promoting both the well-being of its people and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”

Contrast this with the core messages from the U.S., South Korea and Japan that the most important goal at this point in time is that succession goes ahead smoothly, and to console the North Korean people for their loss. Thankfully, the most engaged actors in the region are respecting the domestic political processes of a sovereign North Korea, and treading lightly to ensure a frequently belligerent Pyongyang is not agitated in its tenuous state.

Canada may be preserving its sovereignty at home and abroad, but it has become increasingly selective when it comes to punching above its weight internationally to ensure peace and stability. Even the U.K., Germany and Sweden have established embassies in Pyongyang; and in case Canada hasn’t noticed, these are not former communist bloc states but Western, friendly, NATO (with the exception of Sweden) allies. It appears that Canada has chosen to use North Korea as a soft target to demonstrate to the world, in particular the U.S. (which Canada is often accused of blindly following), that it still has foreign policy independence.

What is more, Canada’s intransigence towards North Korea makes no sense through an economic lens. As Canada works hard to ease some of the strain created with South Korea over its continued ban on Canadian beef imports, Canada must do all that it can to ensure stability in North Korea. Canada may feel good about picking on Pyongyang to show that Ottawa still has international relevance, but it may want to reconsider its policy if it has any hopes of gaining influence in the rapidly evolving political and economic region.

*The writer is a policy analyst at Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

By Ben Kolisnyk
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