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North Korea: From Vancouver to Charlevoix

Daniel C. Park, G7 Research Group
February 2, 2018

Against the backdrop of North Korea's ever-advancing nuclear and inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) arsenal, escalation of war rhetoric and United States president Donald Trump's call to end the "era of strategic patience" the inter-Korean dialogue between North and South Korea on January 9, 2017, was an unexpected and hopeful attempt at restoring rapprochement in the Korean peninsula. The first and much-anticipated dialogue took place at Panmunjom in the DMZ, the demilitarized zone separating the two countries, after two years of diplomatic hiatus between the North's capital, Pyeongyang, and the South's capital, Seoul. The dialogue, in contrast to recent spiralling tensions, signalled signs of thaw. Pyeongyang agreed to participate in the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea on February 9-25, 2018, even agreeing to have both countries' athletes march together at the opening ceremony. The North Korean delegation also approved the restoration of a military hotline with Seoul, disconnected in 2016.

At the insistence of Pyongyang, the issue of denuclearization was absent at the dialogue over concern that it would spoil the long-awaited restoration of inter-Korean relations. However, Pyongyang's Chief Negotiator Ri Son-Gwon reassured his southern counterparts that their nuclear arsenal is "only aimed at the United States, not our brethren, nor China and Russia." The dialogue in retrospect was emblematic of the beginnings of a longer détente between the two Koreas.

Nonetheless, the proposals made at the subsequent Foreign Ministers' Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula held in Vancouver on January 16, 2018, may have seriously compromised prospects for peace made at Panmunjom.

Canada and the United States co-hosted the Vancouver meeting to address the security challenges in the Korean peninsula. The 20 invited countries were all former U.S. allies during the Korean War, excluding the those that wield the most diplomatic leverage against North Korea — China and Russia. Although Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, along with several foreign ministers, acknowledged that any successful resolution will need the cooperation of China and Russia, a senior Canadian official defended the decision to exclude them stating that the high-profile gathering was organized for "like-minded countries" on the North Korean question. The reason to exclude Beijing and Moscow, however, became more clear at the summit.

At the gathering, the participants collectively sought emboldened and rigorous enforcement of UN sanctions against Pyongyang for a "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling of its nuclear program." In particular, Beijing and Moscow were on spotlight for their alleged failure to enforce UN sanctions against Pyongyang. This was due to several Chinese companies' alleged involvement in aiding the North's Kim Jong-un regime to skirt sanctions, while both Beijing and Moscow have been accused of exporting oil and importing coal from Pyongyang. As expected, both parties derided the summit as "Cold War thinking" and "blindly [resorting] to pressure and isolation" rather than "dialogue" with Pyongyang.

Most notably, their exclusion threatens the international consensus on Pyongyang's nuclear program, which is subscribed to by Beijing and Moscow, threatening to impede Sino- and/or Russia-U.S. cooperation on this issue. In particular, China's exclusion gives it greater justification to maintain the status quo. Although Beijing wields considerable diplomatic and economic leverage against the Kim regime, it is not a strong proponent of choking North Korea's already poor economy. This is because, although Beijing does not approve of Pyongyang's nuclear brinkmanship, preventing regime collapse has always been a greater priority over denuclearization. Also, considering that the summit centred on bolstering United Nations sanctions, it is puzzling that countries with little to no relevance to North Korea's economy (Denmark, Colombia and Greece) were invited, while Pyongyang's top trade partners (Pakistan, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Luxemburg and Singapore) did not receive an invitation.

The next international forum expected to discuss the North Korean issue is the upcoming G7 Charlevoix Summit scheduled for June 8-9, 2018. Canada has already announced that it will have peace and security as one of its five core themes for the summit. It will likely build on the 2017 Taormina Statement on North Korea that called for the "international community to redouble its efforts" to ensure a thorough enforcement of relevant UN sanctions against North Korea. More recently, at the G7 finance ministers' meeting at Washington DC on October 13, 2017, it was unanimously agreed to bolster measures to "counter North Korean attempts to avert United Nations sanctions."

At Charlevoix, if the North Korean issue is indeed explored, the G7's approach is expected to mirror what has been proposed at Taormina, Washington and the recent gathering at Vancouver, namely the bolstering of UN sanctions and calling on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions. This is a likely scenario considering that all G7 members were present at the Vancouver meeting and no member called for a new approach in resolving the issue.

The G7 should acknowledge, however, that, as a rational actor, the Kim regime will never denuclearize — at least not as long as the United States is regarded as a threat. Past U.S.-led intervention against non-nuclear adversaries such as Serbia, Iraq and, especially, Libya underscored to Pyongyang that the development of nuclear weapons is the best insurance against a potential regime-change war perpetrated by the United States. Calling for denuclearizing is thus futile from the start. The G7 also must acknowledge that despite the ever-mounting sanctions Pyongyang's nuclear program has flourished in recent years at an alarming rate. It is unclear whether the sanctions are perfunctory or Pyongyang is impervious to any economic blockade, but what is clear is that the sanctions alone have accomplished little to nothing.

The G7 must attempt to mirror the little progress made at the inter-Korean dialogue and engage in a direct dialogue with Pyongyang along with the participation of Beijing and Moscow. Thawing of relations and pursuing a longer détente in the Korean peninsula are greater priorities over the seemingly impossible task of denuclearizing North Korea.

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Daniel Chan ParkDaniel C. Park is a graduate of the international relations program at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. He is a program editor at the NATO Association of Canada, a research assistant at York University for dissertation research on counterterrorism strategies and an editor at the G7 Research Group. He was a member of the G20 Research Group's field team at the 2016 G20 Hangzhou Summit in China and the G7 Research Group's field team at the 2017 Hamburg Summit in Germany. He is also a Naval Reservist at HMCS York in training to become a naval warfare officer.


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