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The ONW Salon: Can Canada help avoid nuclear war with North Korea?  

Susanna Kelley (Moderator): Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says Canada is redoubling diplomatic efforts to cool down the threat of nuclear weapons hitting Canada and the U.S. in light of North Korea's latest test last week.  Should Canada join the U.S. missile defense shield, as the Conservatives urge?  Richard Mahoney, Will Stewart and Tom Parkin debate.


Tom Parkin:

Donald Trump has been pushing for his Ground-based Mid-course Defense (GMD) program for some time and he’s undertaking a war of words with North Korea as just the way to get it.

Canada should reject GMD involvement. But first, let’s talk about North Korea.

North Korea has a mass of conventional weapons that can hail down on Seoul, South Korea, within minutes of launch. Seoul is about 100km from the demilitarized zone that holds the armistice. However, the U.S. response to a strike by North Korea on Seoul would be a strike by the United States against North Korea. It’s deterrence.

From North Korea’s strategic position, the world looks a bit different. The U.S. has the capability to strike North Korea without deterrence. Of course this isn’t unusual—by definition, all non-nuclear countries without nuclear allies are open to attack.

But the situation with North Korea isn’t usual. The United States remains at war with the country—there is an armistice, no peace treaty—and relationships are very bad. Recent events with Libya, Iran and Iraq encourage North Korea to cling to weapons rather than give them up.

Libya and Iraq gave up their weapons programs yet became targets of “regime change” anyway. Their leaders were killed, hundreds of thousands died, countries left smouldering wreckage. Iran signed a deal, and has been complying with it, yet Trump wants to withdraw support for the deal.

Would the United States launch an attack on North Korea? Certainly no less likely than in these other cases. From North Korea’s vantage point, they need weapons because they need deterrence.

Now comes GMD, the idea of which is to protect the United States from a North Korean intercontinental missile.

First, Canada has no weapons pointed at North Korea and North Korea has no reason to attack us. But, it is possible that, for example, a missile targeted at Seattle could hit Vancouver—an accident. The suggestion has been made that Canada needs to be in GMD to be protected. That doesn’t make sense.

Remember, NATO was created as a defensive alliance in which, under Article 5, an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all. Thinking our NATO ally United States would allow nuclear weapons to fall on Canada without protection or response would violate this trust.

Second, GMD-type programs unleash an arms race. This is why the U.S. and USSR signed an anti-ballistic defense treaty in 1972.

Despite Trump’s talk, GMD is not very effective. In testing, only ten of 18 missiles were intercepted under test conditions.

This means North Korea needs to build and fire multiple missiles, not just one.

Canadian involvement in GMD doesn’t offer any new protection. What would protect Canada is North Korea giving up nuclear weapons. To do that, Canada should be pursuing sanctions against North Korea, working through the United Nations to highlight North Korea’s human rights record, supporting a general nuclear non-proliferation treaty and encouraging discussions with North Korea toward a treaty.

Dialing back the threats while increasing the cost of nuclear programs is the right strategy for Canada.


Will Stewart:

Tom is right on many points, but I disagree with him on others. He is right that we have to avoid another arms race. He is right that the U.S. cannot claim to be threatened by North Korea any more than most other nations could easily be threatened by the U.S. now. And he is right that any action could unleash a really devastating reality for South Korea in seconds, not hours.

Where I disagree with Tom is that diplomacy is the only option on the table. North Korea's human rights violations are not new and not news. If the UN doesn’t already know of the terrible conditions, the totalitarian states, and the cult of personality that is the North Korean regime, they never will. What’s taking place there is no secret.

I do agree that diplomacy has traditionally been our best ally here. It’s what has prevented a continuation of war on the peninsula for this long.

Diplomacy must continue. The challenge is that you now have two leaders who aren’t playing by the rules of a legitimate state. The U.S. has traditionally been run by seasoned political experts, backed by a strong civil service that sought to avoid war through traditional means. And it worked well.

That is no longer the case. We now have two leaders engaged in brinksmanship. Two leaders taking to shows of force and verbal threats. All it takes is one leader to rise above the day-to-day sabre rattling of the other. Diplomacy goes out the window. That is the crux of the issue we’re facing.

If we look back to the Cuban missile crisis and consider the well-studied events of that crisis, we see at least one leader who blinked. We see leaders who understood what was being contemplated. To make the contrast clearer, put Trump in that position now. He would take to Twitter to say that the Russians should "just watch what I am going to do" or "this is the calm before the storm".

It’s not that Korea has changed (with the exception of the technology to reach the U.S.). It’s that the once great democracy of the U.S. is now run by an impulsive, unprepared President who has no concept of his role in the world community. Now I’m sure Richard will tell us the answer to this issue.


Richard Mahoney:

Tom sets out the issue well above, both on the situation with respect to North Korea and the need to de-escalate tensions. A military solution would be devastating for the world, and if we listen to the ravings of Kim Jong Un and Donald J. Trump, it’s hard not to imagine a series of careless acts on either or both of their parts that would lead to further escalation. Canada and the rest of the world need to do everything we can to avoid that and to focus on never getting to that point.

Canada has condemned in the strongest terms North Korea’s continued ballistic missile launches, which are in direct violation of many United Nations Security Council resolutions. The latest launch is a reckless and dangerous act that threatens regional and global security.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is one of the stars of the Trudeau government. She has repeatedly engaged her counterparts from the United States, China, South Korea, and Japan, among others, on this issue, including visiting China and Asia this month. She’s now headed to a meeting of NATO foreign ministers where Korea will no doubt be a topic of discussion and action.

A diplomatic solution to the North Korea crisis is essential for the world and should be possible if sanity can be brought into the process. To that end, Minister Freeland has also announced that Canada will convene a meeting of foreign ministers in Canada, co-hosted with the United States, to address this international security threat. I am sure the issue of sanctions and further sanctions will be on the table. It makes sense to me that the government of Canada supports measures and engagement that will encourage North Korea to resume a dialogue towards a political solution.

Tom Parkin:

Let's stay on topic here, which is whether in the context of the North Korean conflict Canada should join GMD. I've clearly said no for the reasons I've stated, though I haven't heard a position on this from either Will or Richard.

To summarize, I argue: Canada gains no benefit from GMD participation; GMD leads to nuclear proliferation; and GMD does not eliminate the nuclear threat of North Korea.

I am glad the federal government is holding talks with the North Koreans. That can't be a bad thing. In my opinion, we have to be clear about our concerns with their human rights record and about their development of nuclear weapons.

On human rights they will say it is not for them to please us. Our response should be that we will work hard with allies to make it in their interests to please us. We need to continue to work on sanctions, particularly getting China to assist with the legal and corrupt means in which material gets into North Korea.

On nuclear proliferation they will point to American weapons pointed at them. And here's where we’re weak.

Our response should be that we support the Non-Proliferation Treaty. We do not support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, Canada was one of the very few countries in the UN to not support such a move. So we have no response there.

Similarly, I am worried about Freeland's hawkish views about GMD.

She hasn't said she will join the program. But she recently hasn't said no when asked.

The Liberals have done some things right here. But contradictory things even out to no gain.

GMD offers nothing for Canada except more missile production and we should say no. We should favour the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Sure, these things may irritate Donald Trump. But there are many, many friends around the world who would work with us on a path that isn't about saber rattling and nuclear build up.


Will Stewart:

Tom is right to force Richard and I to answer. But before I do, I would ask our readers to consider how or if it is possible to convince a dictator, son of a dictator, grandson of a dictator, to suddenly accept human rights and diplomacy? This is not a game between two developed nations; it involves a man who has always been taught that the keys to his kingdom are based in oppression and war.

So my answer is yes, we should participate. And I draw on Trudeau's own words as one of the reasons for it.

In response to criticism from the Conservatives, Prime Minister Trudeau said, "We have not changed our position at this point, but we continue to engage in thoughtful ways to ensure we're doing everything we can and we must do to keep Canadians safe.”

Diplomacy plays a role, as does the UN, as does sanctions, as does Canada's position in holding a summit. But if we are to believe that our government is doing everything possible to protect Canadians (as articulated by Trudeau himself) then what other options besides the defense shield could we do? I am all ears, but the fact is that this is a clear threat, made even worse by the Trump leadership south of the border.

The U.S. has spent decades and billions of dollars developing technologies to stop incoming ballistic missiles, which includes both air and sea defense mechanisms, similar to defenses in South Korea. In recent months the U.S. has conducted a full review of its aging missile defense program and is planning on updating its defenses on the west coast in response to the accelerated pace of North Korea's ballistic missile program.

In 2005, Canada was invited to join the U.S.' missile shield. However, then-Prime Minister Paul Martin decided against it following a divisive national debate. Canada's decision not to join the defense program has been under increased scrutiny in recent months, as North Korea has conducted dozens of military exercises.

I am sure Richard can share more on those debates, but fast forward to now when there is significant uncertainty if the U.S. would defend Canada in the event of an attack. So what exactly is Canada to do to keep Canadians safe?

North Korea has been the subject of sanctions, calls for an end to human rights abuses, UN declarations, etc., for decades and I would submit that things are worse now than they’ve ever been, and we now have a nuclear armed state. These prove that the approaches that Tom articulates are flawed. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the very definition of insanity. It’s time to take different actions to end the cycle that the NDP and Liberals have supported in the past.


Richard Mahoney:

As Will points out, the Conservative Party has called on the Liberal government to open up negotiations with the Trump Administration on participation in Trump’s missile defense plan:

As I said above, Tom assembles the arguments against joining reasonably well.

As Will also points out, Canada has been through this debate before. Prime Minister Martin’s government decided in 2005 to opt out of the American missile defense plan. I thought that was the right decision at the time, as did most Canadians. Participating then would have meant a very costly participation in the “weaponization” of space and an escalation of arms production, including nuclear arms production.

The question before us now is: does the North Korea situation change circumstances sufficiently to merit joining this initiative now?

Will is also right to point out that the Prime Minister has used cautious language in responding to questions on this. I think that is smart. We are dealing with a dangerous situation. There is an opportunity for Canada to lead here, and it appears that Minister Freeland and the PM are doing that. Ruling out options at this point would be unwise, given that we are asking the community of nations to consider taking measures in concert with each other to improve the situation.

While I doubt that will necessitate participation in Trump’s current missile defense plan, I do think Canada can play the role of a sane partner with enhanced global standing, membership in NATO and the closest ally and neighbor of the U.S. Former Prime Minister Martin has himself pointed out that we face a different situation now than we did then.

So ruling out any action on some combined global or UN lead defense plan wouldn’t be smart until we and the rest of the world have considered all options for deterrence and de-escalation, and found the smartest way to move forward to find a solution, politically, diplomatically, or otherwise. Let's see what plan they collectively come up with, before we rule it out. Collective action in response to North Korean is a worthy goal in and of it, and is the most effective potential response.


Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. Will Stewart is Managing Principal at Navigator, served as Chief of Staff to several Ontario Ministers and often appears as a national affairs commentator.  Tom Parking is a veteran NDP strategist, columnist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 










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