Andrea BergerThe Vancouver Meeting on North Korea: What Should We Expect?

On 16 January, Canada and the US are jointly hosting a group of foreign ministers in Vancouver to discuss the North Korea issue. For background on the meeting, I wrote an earlier piece for the Canadian International Council at the time the event was announced.

I’m pleased the initiative got off the ground, that Canada has emphasized the importance of peaceful and diplomatic solutions to the Korean crisis, and that is playing such an active role in promoting multilateral approaches to this issue. We have a lot to contribute.

Multilateralism is critical for addressing the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Relevant countries continue to disagree about the nature of the threat from the DPRK and how to respond to it. Those gaps need to be closed, especially when it comes to threat assessments. Furthermore, any one of our policy tools requires some level of multilateral buy-in, whether that’s sanctions or negotiations. A meeting that seeks to foster that cooperation is welcome.

But what should we expect the meeting to accomplish? My ambitions for and enthusiasm about the meeting have moderated as we have neared the date, for three reasons: the discussion over the context, the narrative around the meeting’s purpose, and the meeting’s reported participants.

On context, Canada has repeatedly emphasized that diplomatic solutions to the DPRK issue are “essential” and “possible”.  The US State Department’s initial announcement about the meeting, by contrast, continued a line heard from the Administration before about how diplomatic options remain viable “for now”.

When you read that US statement together with its descriptions of the purpose of the meeting, it becomes difficult to avoid the conclusion that the US probably doesn’t want to talk much about non-sanctions diplomatic options in Vancouver. The US first said the meeting would discuss how to “counter” the North Korean threat, which is not language you traditionally use to describe pathways for negotiations. It is language you use if you want to talk about strengthened sanctions (or even military options), however. Brian Hook, the State Department director for policy planning, just gave a briefing in DC where he seemed to corroborate this assessment of US priorities for Vancouver. In particular, he noted that the US would seek to enhance maritime interdictions on North Korea, and disrupting the regime’s funding.

The former sounds as if it is being set up as a major talking point for Vancouver. On Friday, a group of like-minded members of the Proliferation Security Initiative put out a US-coordinated statement on the importance of enforcing maritime provisions of recent UNSCRs. Coincidence? Recall also that the US tried to push for very strong maritime interdiction authorities at the UNSC in the last few months, and that the most ambitious measures were rejected by China and likely Russia.

Which brings me to participants, a subject where there is plenty of daylight between the Canadian and US descriptions, too. Canada talked of inviting “relevant countries” with a stake in the DPRK situation, and at one point intimated that China would be one of them. The US, on the other hand, has from the outset said participants were primarily the UN Command sending states – the countries that contributed troops to the Korean War – plus other key allies, like Japan. Canada and the US later jointly agreed that China and Russia would indeed not be receiving an invitation. Almost all of the countries that signed the Proliferation Security Initiative letter on Friday did receive one.

In other words, the US is eager to talk to countries that have some military stake in the issue, and which are relatively like-minded. Wanting to gather friendly countries is understandable, depending upon the purpose of the meeting. The US has repeatedly engaged with countries in like-minded groups on the subject of implementing both the Iran and North Korea sanctions regimes, for example. (Side note: I’m currently reading Richard Nephew’s excellent book The Art of Sanctions, where he discusses the importance of these groups for US efforts to enhance implementation of Iran sanctions) So if it is stronger and more provocative maritime sanctions that the US is after, that composition and level of seniority makes sense; a decision to endorse such an approach would be one other countries need to take at a high level. That may also help explain why Mattis is going to the dinner at a foreign ministers meeting, though these sorts of protocol decisions have always mystified me.

The UN Command countries are, however, not who you would invite (or at least, not only) if one wishes to seriously close gaps in perspective on non-coercive diplomatic options and build support for a way forward with all relevant parties. And that is why the Chinese and the Russians are miffed. Some countries outside of the meeting will no doubt see this as an effort by Washington to socialize highly provocative and coercive options amongst its own coalition of countries, or to circumvent the UNSC. Or both. It is also likely why Ottawa’s and Washington’s narratives about the meeting have consistently adopted different tones: the two capitals may simply not have had the same vision for Vancouver.

My definition of success for the meeting takes this into account. I will be satisfied if the agenda and any consensus statement is balanced; while I fully support efforts to improve the implementation of UN Security Council sanctions, and to strengthen them in places, the meeting will have been a missed opportunity if it focuses only on sanctions. Serious discussion of wider diplomatic options is, to borrow the words of Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, essential and possible. Even without Beijing and Moscow represented, agreement amongst the Vancouver group that diplomacy with North Korea is a tool that cannot remain underutilized, would be a step forward.