Canada boasts of an extensive international network and a notable global presence. With consular services in 130 nations, 260 offices abroad, representation at high-level forums (such as the G7 and G20), and a powerful Canadian passport, Canada’s foreign policy agenda carries weight and wields influence. Nonetheless, in recent years Canada’s foreign policy agenda has overlooked one country – its weak diplomatic capacities and engagement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) point to a gap in Canada’s humanitarian and diplomatic engagement in the region.
Canada recognized the DPRK as a state in 2000 and began diplomatic relations with the country in 2001, but bilateral relations between the two countries have never been smooth. Increasingly aggressive North Korean military actions and concerns about its nuclear weaponry prompted the Harper government to implement a “Controlled Engagement Policy” toward North Korea in 2010, withdrawing all diplomatic services and limiting bilateral interactions to a few key areas such as regional security concerns, the human rights situation, inter-Korean relations, and consular issues. However, even before 2010, Canada never had an embassy in North Korea, citing human rights concerns and an authoritarian government. Nonetheless, North Korea has expressed a desire for Canada to have a more direct presence in its country. For instance in 2017, when negotiating the release of imprisoned Canadian Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, North Korean officials offered his freedom in exchange for a Canadian Ambassador or full-time envoy to the country.
Although Canadian diplomatic relations are officially maintained through the Embassy of Canada in Seoul and North Korea’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, there are no opportunities for personal interaction between the two countries beyond these venues. In North Korea, Sweden represents Canada as its protecting power, offering certain services to protect Canadian nationals as there is no Canadian presence in the country.
Canada’s new Indo-Pacific Strategy, which was revealed last November, mentions the DPRK seven times. Although all mentions emphasize the importance of “upholding regional security” and advocate for denuclearization, there is no significant action plan that is laid out to achieve these goals besides maintaining the status quo of continuing sanctions. Having a stronger physical presence in the region seems to be a key focus of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, and North Korea should not be an exception. The country is significantly relevant to the region; security and humanitarian concerns regarding the country are shared by its neighbours, and maintaining peace on the Korean peninsula is crucial for the region’s economic and social well-being. Additionally, the shared border with South Korea, a country identified as one of the top five largest economies in the region and top ten globally in 2022, should also be of note. If Canada hopes to pursue new initiatives that seek to increase partnerships, involvement, and exchanges between itself and the region, such as the Strategic Partnership and the Indo-Pacific Engagement Initiative (IPEI) amongst others, the possibility of greater engagement in the DPRK should also be considered.
The argument for greater engagement is manifold. Firstly, as a champion of human rights on the global stage, gaining deeper insights into the humanitarian situation in North Korea would be helpful for Canada’s advocacy purposes and could provide information for new or remodelled development or foreign aid initiatives in the future. Secondly, maintaining a presence in North Korea in collaboration with other embassies could be useful in exerting pressure or relaying a symbolic gesture to the Kim regime. Thirdly, a Canadian embassy could provide assistance to other embassies in case of emergency, such as how the Canadian embassy assisted its American counterparts during the Iran hostage crisis. Finally, as security and nuclear concerns influence a significant portion of Canada’s approach to North Korea, being on the ground opens up the possibility for Canada to play a larger role in negotiating new or continued peace on the peninsula, and establish a more significant connection to the nation. Perhaps this is too optimistic a view. However, at worst, the embassy would have no impact on North Korea but would still benefit Canada with new knowledge and potentially more political leverage. Especially since Canada played a considerable role in the current state of the Korean peninsula today, it should seek to continue to be a significant player in a more direct way.
One of the most direct ways of ensuring greater engagement is by having a Canadian embassy on the ground in the DPRK. This proposal has been supported by some former diplomats, Ambassadors, and academics over the past decade. According to advocates, a Canadian embassy would not only provide opportunities for Canada to have eyes and ears on the ground and paint a clearer picture of the socio-economic situation in Pyongyang, but would also allow for “low-level tactical engagement”. Indeed, although North Korean secrecy may prevent diplomats from obtaining accurate insights, diplomats’ lives outside their workplaces as well as their relationships with other embassies and locals would represent more opportunities for learning and engagement than what Canada currently has. For instance, former UK Ambassador to North Korea David Slinn recounts how he and his fellow diplomats gained first-hand knowledge of occurrences of crime, black markets, and humanitarian concerns in different regions during his time there.
However, diplomatic relations are only impactful as long as both states are willing to demonstrate good faith and openness. Certainly, North Korea’s nuclear threats, disregard for human rights, and failure to commit to an international rules-based order should not be disregarded and puts it at a crossroads with Canadian values. However, diplomatic relations do not constitute an endorsement of the country’s domestic policies or practices. This trend of discontinuing economic and diplomatic relations due to differing values, as seen in the recent pushes for “friendshoring”, may represent a lost opportunity for Canada to maintain relations with “detractor” countries in the way it used to. Indeed, perhaps Canada should exploit its status as a Middle Power to pursue a separate agenda from its allies and maintain relations with “detractor” states. This may give Canada more economic stability due to diversification, as well as political credibility on the global stage, especially regarding countries that are more alienated.
Of course, having diplomatic staff in an unstable country comes with a degree of possible risk – the possibility of war on the peninsula or being wrongfully imprisoned by North Korean police, for example, are valid apprehensions. However, if North Korea’s previous desires for direct Canadian diplomatic engagement still remain, this may not be an immediate concern. Indeed, it may benefit Canada to reflect on diverse ways it could engage with North Korea, but still demonstrate its commitment to its values. For example, Canada still maintains diplomatic relations or consular services in various countries it has sanctioned.
Analyzing the possibility of a Canadian embassy in North Korea should be done with the following questions in mind: is the Controlled Engagement Policy hindering Kim Jong Un’s regime or helping address humanitarian concerns in any way? Is it possible to monitor security concerns or take substantive action on policy areas (such as humanitarian aid) if there is no direct engagement with the country? Could greater involvement in North Korea help Canada gain legitimacy as a “Pacific country” and partner in the Indo-Pacific? And could a physical presence in North Korea lead to a possible future where Canada plays a role in leading talks regarding peace, disarmament, and human rights? Although the right path forward is not very clear, addressing these questions by committing to a greater presence and engagement in North Korea may help illuminate some answers.
Joy Kwak is a first-year M.A. candidate in the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, specializing in Diplomacy & Foreign Policy. She has a bachelor’s degree in International Development Studies from McGill University. Her interests include Canadian foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific and Canada’s national security and immigration policies.
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