by Erich Weingartner, Ottawa, 27 April 2009
On the 5th of this month, North Korea launched a long-range ballistic missile into the eastern skies above and beyond a very agitated Japan. The following week, a hundred thousand cheering citizens gathered in Pyongyang to celebrate what they called the “successful launch of a communications satellite”-which is now broadcasting revolutionary songs extolling the virtues of their Dear Leader.
Few outside North Korea (or “DPRK”, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as it is officially called) believe that a satellite actually made it into space, or that this was even the real intention. Opinions differ as to what was the real purpose of the launch:
- Was it a demonstration that North Korea is able to threaten the United States with weapons?
- Was it test-marketing missiles North Korea wants to sell to customers like Iran, who sent observers to the launch?
- Was it a “remember me” welcome to President Obama because his administration was too busy identifying priorities elsewhere?
- Was it to show defiance vis-à-vis China’s insistence that the DPRK comply with nuclear agreements reached in the Six-Party talks?
- Was it a signal to South Korea’s President that a hard-line attitude will get him nowhere?
- Was it a ploy to increase its bargaining potential in further nuclear negotiations?
- Was its purpose internal?
- Was it meant to underline to the North Korean people that continued sacrifices were necessary to assure their security against outside aggression?
- Was it meant to assure regime stability to allow for a secure dynastic succession after Chairman Kim Jong Il’s reported stroke and continued precarious health?
- Or was it some combination of all of the above?
Whatever the motive, it is important to set the missile test in a broader political context. There is a continuing cold war on the peninsula, and most stakeholders have fixed perceptions about North Korea that are steeped in history, distrust, fear and irrationality.
Those of us who have followed North Korea’s activities since the end of the Cold War (with capital letters) in the past two decades simply threw up our hands at the prospect of yet another multi-stage rocket launch.
“Here we go again,” was a common refrain. The DPRK launched one for President Clinton, a second one for President Bush, so why not one for President Obama?
We were also less than impressed by the predictable action at the UN Security Council, which managed to issue only a nonbinding Presidential Statement, because China and Russia were convinced that caution is the better part of valour, and additional sanctions would run counter to the purpose of Korean denuclearization. Besides, UNSC Resolution 1718 after North Korea’s nuclear test in October 2006 already imposed a list of sanctions that had little effect.
Nor will we be surprised if the DPRK stages another nuclear test should the Obama Administration refuse to pay them the attention they crave.
What has changed in the past ten years is that North Korea has become increasingly predictable. But so has international reaction to every step they take. There is a certain rhythm to this dance around a problem that has been with us for 60 years, yet no one seems to hear the music. Is it really true that the smartest minds of the world cannot solve this conundrum, or does no one want to solve it?
I would like to believe that Canada has a role to play in Korea, but my experience in the last nine years since we established diplomatic relations with the DPRK has left me somewhat disappointed. Perhaps I need to review the basics once again. Here is what I thought I knew on the subject. I will invite you to correct me:
Canadian policies Canada’s foreign policy is based on enhancing our national prosperity by expanding foreign markets, ensuring our national security, and promoting our values internationally. These values include the promotion of disarmament, peace, justice, development, humanitarianism, human security and human rights. Canada believes states implementing the United Nations human rights charter make better, more profitable trading partners, and are less likely to pose a threat to global security. Canada has no sticks, and only a limited number of relatively small carrots. We believe in engagement, not confrontation, in dialogue, not diatribe. When Canada established diplomatic relations with the DPRK, it was in order to assist our long-time ally the ROK to move toward peace on the Korean peninsula by engaging directly with the DPRK on bilateral and multilateral issues such as famine, human rights, missile development and regional stability.
Canada has a history with Korea that spans more than one hundred years: missionary activity from the 19th century; participation in the Korean War; forty years of diplomatic and economic ties with the ROK; fifteen years of academic Track II involvement and nine years of diplomatic relationships with the DPRK. On the DPRK, Canada tends to follow the lead of both the USA and the ROK. We have an affinity to multilateral approaches, with a strong commitment to the United Nations. We are firmly anti-proliferation, and take seriously our humanitarian responsibilities. We value our history of peace promotion, peace building, and peacekeeping. We value our economic relations with the ROK, China, and Japan. We have a significant and growing Korean-Canadian constituency.
Canadians believe in cooperation between government and civil society. The Canadian government began to take serious interest in North Korea because it was prodded and encouraged to do so by churches, the academic community, and non-governmental organizations. During the current nuclear impasse, Canada has accepted the US argument that a “common front” approach is needed to persuade the DPRK to scrap its nuclear weapons programme. Some academics and NGOs do not share the same approach, preferring critical engagement and a coordinated division of labour between government and civil society.
Premises Canada is a second-tier, and relatively distant player compared to the frontline states now engaged in the Six-Party process. Based on Canada’s history and experience in peace promotion and human security, however, a potentially significant role could be played. I would base our policies and programmes on a number of premises:
None of the five front-line states in Six-Party talks is willing to accept a nuclear-armed DPRK, considering the threat to strategic stability, the risk of nuclear material being sold to third parties, and the prospect of an accelerated arms race in the region.
By the same token, none of the states in the Six-Party talks see the sudden collapse of the DPRK as a desirable outcome, considering the multiple dangers inherent in such a collapse for all parties involved: military threat from dying regime; regional turmoil; instability and unrest (possibly civil war) during transition; floods of refugees; economic and social costs; resurgent nationalism; uncertain status and alignment of a unified Korea; decreased viability of US military bases as guarantor of security and influence in region; possible race for military ascendancy in region resulting in deterioration of the Asia-Pacific security environment and strategic balance; increased antagonism in the Sino-Japanese rivalry.
The countries most interested in returning the DPRK to a non-nuclear, non-threatening state are also interested in extending the duration of the current division of Korea-at least in the immediate future-thereby extending the life of the Kim Jong Il regime by default.
The dilemma for Kim Jong Il is that economic reforms are indispensable for regime survival, but economic reforms result in unpredictable changes, leading to regime insecurity. Economic change in the DPRK is likely to accelerate as the regime feels more self-secure. Therefore paradoxically, offering security guarantees and economic development may be the fastest and safest way to bring about regime change.
Isolating the DPRK regime from the outside world-for example by sanctions-has the unwelcome side effect of encouraging missile development and sales, narco-criminal activities, illicit international trade, and an expanding internal black market. A Mafia-style economic management system will teach wrong lessons about market-based norms and international legal responsibilities.
The human security concept as defined by Canada may not be immediately applicable to the DPRK. Major insecurities of ordinary Koreans result from a political and social system that excludes individual liberties, and from the harsh punishments imposed for anti-social behaviour or disloyalty to the party and supreme leader. Food shortages and economic hardships have led to large-scale famine, with an increasing number of migrant-refugee-defectors crossing the border into China and Russia. These issues are not currently on the table of six-party talks. A long-range vision of human security would dictate the need to find solutions that provide the people of the DPRK with maximum security and maximum development, with minimum disruption in their daily lives, and minimum personal and social harm.
In any country, change happens most profitably when internal dynamics favour change, when its citizens are the authors and executors of change. Interdependency-whether economic or security-is a powerful motivator for international cooperation and conflict management. As a long-term goal, Korea as a whole needs to prepare for reconciliation and peaceful coexistence, if not reunification. The two Koreas must ultimately decide their own future together, although second-tier countries like Canada, who do not have major strategic or geopolitical interests in the country, could play an assisting role.
The Six-Party framework could eventually form the basis of an ongoing security mechanism for the northeast Asian region, once the DPRK nuclear issue has been resolved to the satisfaction of the parties involved.
There is an important role for the non-frontline states like the European Union, not in the “high politics” of the nuclear issue, but in the “low politics” of economic and social development. Canada could use its influence as a middle power-as well as our experience in peace promotion and human security-to advance mid- to long-term solutions. There could be a role for the club of second-tier states that have recently normalized relations with Pyongyang, particularly Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and the Europeans, with Canada playing a coordinating role.
Goals Solving the problem of Korea’s division is a very long-term project, requiring good will and intellectual resources of numerous countries. Above all, it will require creative strategies of the kind that former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson excelled in. His vision of the contribution of middle powers to peace making and peace keeping in the bi-polar world of the Cold War may still have some relevance in the last place on earth where the Cold War has survived.
North Korean officials are well aware of and appreciate Canada’s role in opening and maintaining relationships with both Cuba and China. They understand and appreciate our special relationship with both the USA and the Republic of Korea, and for that reason regard us as a potential “honest broker.” The Republic of Korea-at least its previous two governments-has also strongly and repeatedly encouraged Canada in the direction of engagement with the DPRK.
The goals of a Canadian policy might include the following:
- Avoidance of war at all cost;
- Discouraging the development of weapons of mass destruction and reduction of conventional arms on the Korean peninsula;
- Support for multilateral efforts to turn the Korean Armistice Agreement into a peace mechanism;
- Promotion and facilitation of dialogue and cooperative relationships among Koreans and between Canadians and Koreans, to build trust and effective long-term strategies;
- Continued efforts to mitigate starvation, to raise the standard of living, and to promote the human security of the North Korean people;
- Participation in economic development assistance and the DPRK’s integration into global society, in order to reduce tensions and increase interdependency;
- Engagement with the people of North Korea at all possible levels, through intensive pursuit of people-to-people contact and exchanges, the sharing of information, and the provision of educational opportunities for DPR Koreans, both at home and here in Canada.
- Programmatic engagement Until there is movement on the nuclear front, the Canadian government will have limited engagement opportunities. This should not, however, prevent Canadian civil society involvement with the DPRK, hopefully supported and co-financed by agencies of our government.
- Canadian programmes should demonstrate the supportive role that can be played by a second-tier nation with a keen interest in peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and a commitment to improving the lives of DPR Koreans.
- The establishment of permanent reciprocal diplomatic representations in Pyongyang and Ottawa would be beneficial for all Canadian programmes, whether managed by government or civil society.
- Failing the establishment of an embassy, Canada should permanently locate at least one liaison person in Pyongyang. If this cannot be a DFAIT appointment, a CIDA or NGO office with diplomatic backing might be substituted. The current frequency of trips by Canadian diplomats to Pyongyang is unable to sustain the continuity required for serious engagement with the DPRK. Permanent representation would build confidence by demonstrating Canada’s commitment to long-term peace and development on the peninsula.
- Even though Canada’s ambassador to the ROK is now concurrently appointed as ambassador to the DPRK, there still isn’t any regular land-based access between Seoul and Pyongyang. The permanent physical presence of a chargé d’affaires in Pyongyang would be advisable, though unlikely until there are sufficient Canadian programmes and interests in place.
- Despite negative outcomes during the past several years, Track II dialogues should be kick-started again, especially if there is positive movement in nuclear negotiations. It is important to continue to challenge and broaden DPR Korean experience, perspectives and imagination-a transfer of ideas-with or without an expedient reciprocal response.
- The need for reliable information is critical when dealing with the DPRK. A few initiatives, such as the CanKor Report, have met with limited success, but could be strengthened through virtual international networking to provide research, analysis and advice to government, business and civil society, generating ideas for effective engagement in the Korean peninsula.
- Canada could host an experts meeting from other second-tier countries (e.g. Australia, New Zealand, and members of the European Union) who also have established diplomatic relations with the DPRK. Canada would benefit from an evaluation of experiments, pilot projects and engagement experiences of other countries.
- In the foreseeable future-when the Six-Party talks gain momentum toward a positive outcome-the need for a definitive end to the Korean War will gain focus. The transformation of the Armistice Agreement into a peace mechanism will require the participation of former combatants under United Nations Command. With our tradition of peace-promotion, Canada is well placed to initiate a dialogue with other countries that were involved in the Korean War. The aim would be to develop peace-building strategies that help the United Nations once again to become a genuinely neutral interlocutor on the Korean peninsula.
- Canada should explore ways to assist in the realization of human rights in the DPRK. After reviewing the second periodic human rights report submitted by the DPRK some years ago, the UN Human Rights Committee recommended the establishment of a national North Korean human rights institution. Canada’s International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development should be encouraged to offer technical expertise in this endeavour, as part of an ongoing dialogue with the DPRK on human rights.
- Canada could open a dialogue with China to suggest ways of dealing with North Korean “migrants,” without increasing stresses already apparent in the China-DPRK relationship. Elements of a plan might include: permission for reputable NGOs to give social assistance to North Koreans in China; allowing an orderly means for Koreans to apply for emigration to embassies and consulates in China; offering Canadian assistance to transport eligible persons to third countries. The assumption, of course, is that Canada and other like-minded states are willing to accept North Korean migrants.
- Humanitarian assistance continues to be vitally important, but should be delivered with the longer-term perspective of improving food security, and encouraging a transition from emergency to development assistance. Small changes in agricultural management on a limited number of farms, for example, could produce significant results, reaching far beyond the original location. Examples of projects: sustainable cropping systems and crop rotations; green manure crops; supplemental irrigation; reforestation for fuel wood, windbreaks, soil and water conservation; appropriate technology such as alternative energy through wind power and solar ovens; bicycles for rural doctors and families selling produce at farmer’s markets.
- Canada could create a scholarship fund to allow DPRK students to study in Canada. The DPRK has requested English language training, and several NGOs have become involved in such training. Other requested subjects: forestry, aquaculture, goat breeding, mineralogy, mining, economics, management, engineering, and medicine.
- Teaching DPR Koreans about Canada and Canadian life benefits not only the promotion of our values, but offers examples for emulation from a different culture and social system. This can be accomplished through a variety of cultural, academic, artistic, musical, sporting, and circus exchanges. In 1999, the Canadian NGO Global Aid Network took a basketball team to Pyongyang. A delegation of the Canada-DPR Korea Association celebrated Canada Day in Pyongyang in 2002, for which Canada’s Embassy in Beijing sent an exhibit of Canadian books. Two Canadian figure skaters were featured in Pyongyang’s annual Spring Arts Festival in 2003. Last December an expatriate Canadian hockey team played (and lost) with some Pyongyang youth teams. The possibilities of this type of activity are plentiful.
- Canada should encourage and facilitate tourism and business links with the DPRK. A Korean-Canadian entrepreneur in Toronto offers tours to the DPRK, for example, and has assisted DPRK merchants to exhibit and sell cultural wares in Canada. According to a British businessman, Canadian firms are in a good position to invest in sectors such as mining, fisheries, forestry, agriculture and energy. For the timid, cooperative arrangements could be made with South Korean firms with experience in the DPRK, or those who have operations in the Kaesong Industrial Park.
- People-to-people contacts and exchanges organized by Canadian NGOs are a valuable contribution to the building of trust and confidence, and tend to create a favourable atmosphere for inter-governmental dialogue. Opening as many doors and windows as possible into and out of the DPRK, may alter perceptions of threat, giving space to the possibility of hope.