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One North Korea summit, two messages: Canada and the U.S. in Vancouver

By Brian Gold      

Media reports suggested differing opinions regarding inviting China amongst the co-hosts. Canada desired an invite for China in the summit while the U.S. did not. This disagreement points to the differing messages Canada and the U.S. hoped to send from the summit.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, right, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, pictured last month in Ottawa, were the co-hosts for a summit last week in Vancouver on North Korea.
The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The Vancouver summit of 20 foreign ministers on the North Korea nuclear missile crisis that met last Tuesday represented the first substantive action of a Canadian government regarding North Korea in nearly seven years. As such, it has been watched closely in terms of what concrete results it produced in terms of showing Canada has a leadership role to play.

The most discussed point of criticism has been of who did, and did not, get invited by co-hosts Canada and the U.S. The range of invitees included small countries remote from North Korea such as Colombia and Denmark, and excluded powerful neighbours Russia and China, who will play a central role in any possible diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Media reports last week suggested differing opinions regarding inviting China amongst the co-hosts. Canada desired an invite for China in the summit while the U.S. did not. This disagreement points to the differing messages Canada and the U.S. hoped to send from the summit.

Since the end of World War Two, Canada has generally followed a ‘middle power’ approach to international relations. This approach recognizes that a medium-sized power such as Canada will have the most global influence in a multilateral, rules-based international order, one where a few superpowers will not unilaterally do whatever they wish. This approach has been pursued with renewed vigour under the present government.

Reflecting this approach, Canada envisioned the summit to include itself, the U.S., South Korea, and seventeen other countries that supplied troops or aid in alliance against North Korea (and its then ally China) during the Korean War. Officially, this alliance fought from 1950 to 1953 under the flag of the United Nations, highlighting the role of multilateral institutions in countering unilateral aggression.

In this context, the simple fact that the Vancouver summit happened at all was a success for Canada’s middle power strategy. It sent a message that multilateralism, not unilateral actions or statements by one or two superpowers, was the preferred method for dealing with the present North Korean crisis, as it had been for the first one in 1950.

There was pragmatism, however, in the Canadian approach. Japan was invited even though it had not been a part of the UN alliance or even yet a member of the UN during the Korean War. Additionally, in wanting to invite China, Canada was signalling the end of Cold War divisions that had put China outside of the UN until 1971, and indeed fighting against it during the Korean War.

In blocking China’s attendance, the present American administration was clearly intending to send another message. This was made clear by statements by U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson in Vancouver that China and Russia were to blame for significant lapses in enforcement of UN sanctions placed on North Korea for its development of nuclear weapons. This amounted to a doubling down on the exclusion of China.

Limiting the invitations to a ‘Cold War’ roster, the U.S. administration’s message was that the Vancouver summit was the start of a new ‘coalition of the willing’. The term was most famously used to describe an American led coalition for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but was, appropriately enough, first coined in 1994 by the U.S. for a then proposed attack against North Korea.

In sum, from a Canadian viewpoint, just the fact that the Vancouver summit occurred at all can be considered a positive multilateral message that war should not be a unilateral decision. This message however was clouded by the exclusion of China, which sent a message that old battle lines were being resurrected for a possible second Korean War.

Brian R. Gold has taught North Korean history at the University of Alberta, visited North Korea last year, and was a featured speaker at a forum on Canadian policy towards North Korea held this Monday by the University of British Columbia. 

The Hill Times 

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