North Korea meeting shines spotlight on Vancouver

High-level diplomatic gathering could boost the city’s international business aspirations

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. Freeland and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will co-host an international meeting on North Korea in Vancouver on January 16 | Submitted

The upcoming high-level meeting in Vancouver on North Korea, co-hosted by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, could signal the city’s heightened role in Asia-Pacific affairs as Canada tries to flex its diplomatic muscles on the global stage.

But analysts and academic observers also say it’s not clear that the January 16 meeting, despite potentially aligning Ottawa’s position more closely with that of Washington on the increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, would bring about a similar move economically, particularly with regards to the ongoing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiations.

Canada and the United States have invited the foreign ministers of more than a dozen countries – most of which were participants in the 1950-53 Korean War – to attend the meeting. The final list of officials slated to be at the meeting of what’s being dubbed the “Vancouver Group” has not been released.

Former U.S. diplomat Sean King, senior vice-president of New York-based Park Strategies and a geopolitical analyst and commentator on Asia, said the choice of Vancouver was natural after Canada decided to host the meeting.

“It’s the major Canadian city geographically closest to Asia with a deep roster of academics, experts and retired civil servants with Asian experience,” King said, noting the presence of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada in the city, and Vancouver’s hosting of the first summit meeting between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in 1993. “West Coast cities often figure prominently in Asian diplomacy, as the 1951 San Francisco Treaty sealed post-World War Two Allied peace with Japan….  As I see it, Vancouver’s the perfect setting for any such meeting that Canada might like to host.”

Paul Evans, interim research director at the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Asian Research, noted that Vancouver has not historically been a popular choice for high-level political meetings. But he added the more intriguing story might not be the choice of Vancouver, but the Canadian decision to co-host such a meeting with the United States at a time when tensions between Washington and North Korea are at their highest level in decades.

Evans said Canada had been an active humanitarian player in dealing with North Korea in the 1990s, but stopped after former prime minister Stephen Harper took office in 2006. And while the Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have been “engagement-oriented” since winning the 2015 federal election and have been talking about North Korea with countries like the U.S., China, Japan and Australia in recent months, he said the sudden announcement of such a meeting is jarring.

“What is the motivation for the Liberal government to want to co-host an event with the United States on the topic of North Korea, at a time where Canada has not been much of a player on the Korean Peninsula for more than a decade? The disposition of the Liberals is typically to try to make connections and engage North Korea, but it’s very hard to do that, especially at a time when the United States and other allies are doubling down on sanctions and pressures on North Korea.”

At the announcement, Freeland framed the meeting as a way to kick-start the “six-party talks” – a meeting of North and South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan – and as a way for Canada and its allies to ask Pyongyang to come to the table.

Tillerson, meanwhile, characterized the meeting as a campaign to increase pressure against North Korea’s nuclear program.

In early December, North Korea successfully tested a long-range missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. The launch followed a test of two missiles fired by North Korea over Japanese soil in late summer. In addition, U.S. President Donald Trump has been engaged in a Twitter war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for the past year, further driving up tensions.

Evans noted that the Vancouver meeting, which is unlikely to include Chinese participation, would do little to reduce tensions without the participation of North Korea, China and Russia.

“What I hope we can get out of the meeting is that no matter what the balance is of whatever we are trying to pursue, whether it’s more pressure or more diplomacy, the key is for Canada to keep our small windows open with North Korea.”

King is more skeptical about the effectiveness of China’s potential participation, however, noting a South Korean report that alleges Chinese ships have been flying foreign flags while trading with North Korea, a violation of United Nations sanctions.

“[Chinese leader] Xi Jinping will always do just enough on North Korea to get Trump off his back, but not so much so as to destabilize the Kim regime,” King said. “That’s because Beijing’s priorities are to a keep a united Korea, aligned with Washington, off its land border and to eventually drive U.S. troops out of the South to make Beijing’s life easier…. If North Korean threats and bellicosity are what it takes to get [the U.S.] out of there, then, so be it for Beijing. They are not part of the solution.”

In a recent Asia Pacific Foundation poll, between 36% and 44% of Canadians (depending on age group) favour Canada providing both military support and humanitarian aid on the North Korea issue. Evans added that Canada might perceive that co-hosting the meeting will bring closer political alignment with Washington and improve prospects in the NAFTA negotiations, although he noted that economics and trade are highly unlikely to be the driving factor in the Freeland-Tillerson conference.

“It is clear that the Liberal government is heavily and primarily focused on the NAFTA negotiations and management of our relationship with the United States,” he said. “At no time since the Vietnam War have we had a bigger preoccupation in managing our relationship with the United States, of which the NAFTA negotiations are a principle part … but I think the driving force is our desire to signal that Canada can be a key player on a major security issue.”