Canada should step up to the plate and play a much more proactive role in engaging with North Korea on a number of fronts
For Canada, two alternatives emerge as options for the relationships with North Korea and with the rest of the world: isolation or engagement. At this critical time, I think it is a hopeful sign that Trump and Kim Jung Un are meeting at all.
Canadians became aware of Korea during the 1950-53 war when the peninsula was divided by the superpowers and Canadians became part of a UN force from 16 countries on the side of South Korea. An armistice was finally signed on July 27, 1953, but technically, the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) are two countries still at war, and in need of a Peace agreement.
Since that time, Canadians have been aware of both Koreas, and continue participation in the UN military command in South Korea. Even today, Lieutenant General Wayne Eyre, of the Canadian Armed Forces, is Deputy Commander of the UN forces in Korea, putting Canada in the centre of deliberations around the future of the peninsula.
My thesis is that Canada should now step up to the plate and play a much more pro-active role in engaging with North Korea on a number of fronts. I say this not only because of our historic and current ties with the peninsula, and the trust and leverage those afford us as a country, but also because I believe that dialogue is better than confrontation and mutual exchanges better than bombs, even with dictatorial regimes. My involvement has been from two Canadian constituencies: The United Church of Canada and the World Council of Churches, and the Canadian Government.
In January 1981 I was part of a four-person World Council of Churches delegation to visit South Korea as mainline Canadian churches have had an active partnership with North and South Korean churches for over a hundred years.
Our visit took place in the aftermath of the 1980 historic massacre of pro-democracy students and others in the provincial town of Kwangju, South Korea. The country, in the grip of dictator Chun Doo-hwan and under martial law, was struggling to become a democracy. I traveled (illegally) to Kwangju where I heard testimony of brutal violence; fingernails torn out; suicides; false confessions; people betraying each other. And indeed Kwangju became the historic watershed for the democratic movement in South Korea as it emerged to advocate consistently and strongly for reunification of families and peace on the peninsula.
The engagement of the world’s churches with their partners in both Koreas spans many years. I have a document of fourteen pages, stating the dates and results of many international church meetings, some of which included representatives from North Korean churches. Yes, there is a small Christian cause in North Korea and the international engagement of Christian churches continues. As recently as May, 2018, a six-person delegation from the World Council of Churches and the World Council of Reformed Churches was invited by the Korean Christian Federation to North Korea. The invitation was a positive signal from North Koreans to the world-wide ecumenical community that they too promoted dialogue, and wished to advocate for the peaceful co-existence and reunification of the peninsula. In their 2018 statement, the churches urged joint efforts of North and South Korea to alleviate military tensions; inter-Korean people exchanges; and replacement of the ’53 Armistice agreement with a Peace treaty; as well as a commitment to realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear free Korean peninsula. In the context of efforts for a nuclear free world, the document stressed the need for advocating universal ratification and implementation of the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear weapons. Pie in the sky? Or a strong conviction that must be pursued?
And what of Canada’s involvement? President Kim Dae Jung, President of a now-democratic South Korea, and later winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was alive partly because of a resolution by the Canadian Parliament in 1980 to repeal the death sentence imposed on him by the then-dictator Chun Doo Hwan. Later, Kim’s election as President was an historic watershed in Korean history, and represented the establishment of democracy, human rights, and work for the reunification of families and of the peninsula. Through his Sunshine Policy, he reached out to North Korea, promoting peace and the reunification of North and South Korea.
Nineteen years ago this February, in 2000, as a senator, I led a delegation of parliamentarians and NGO experts on a good-will visit to North Korea, preparatory to Canada establishing diplomatic relations with that country. Warned ahead of time by Foreign Affairs bureaucrats that we would be met with hostility, we found the opposite to be true. Much of this was due to North Koreans’ historical memory of relations with Canadians: the expertise of early Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries in establishing health care, hospitals, and universities; the generosity of Canadians during the years of famine in the mid-nineties; family and/or commercial ties; educational exchanges with some Canadian universities; North Korean delegations to Canadian farms to learn agricultural techniques; and enduring ties with Canadian churches, as well as with the World Council of Churches for four decades.
After our trip, I was told that one of our delegation had reported our findings to the Liberal caucus, but was booed—not because of anything she said, but because her report was taking time that could have been devoted to other issues in the upcoming federal election. So much for interest in the Koreas.
Yet Canada did engage directly with North Korea in 2001, and finally established diplomatic relations with that country on Feb 6, 2001, hoping to assist both North and South Korea in their quest for peace and reunification of the peninsula. Several other countries did the same. It was a hopeful time.
However, even that diplomatic recognition was not without disagreement in Ottawa behind the scenes. Canada’s relationship to North Korea has too often vacillated. I was urged to push the important announcement with the prime minister and others before Foreign Minister Axworthy retired, as one never knew what Axworthy’s successor would favor. As it turned out, the new foreign affairs minister did not favor his stated goal of people-to-people exchanges (as promised in a letter to me) in Canada’s strategy for relating to North Korea. So relationships were allowed to wither.
Civil servants also urged me to have Canada declare diplomatic relations before the USA did—as a coup for us! I was also advised that Canada would not declare diplomatic relations with North Korea until after the federal election, for it might be a contentious issue. (Of course. It has always been a contentious issue.)
When I was still a senator, I met two North Koreans in the lobby of the Westin Hotel in Ottawa. They told me they were in Canada to find a place for their embassy, but had just been instructed by Canadian officials to go home—the deal was off.
There was to have been another Canadian government delegation to North Korea in the fall of 2001 (as a side trip from China), and I heard again of fierce lobbying in Ottawa on behalf of both the pros and cons. In the end, because the China trip went ahead and the side trip to North Korea did not, I declined the trip. Canada was vacillating again. For whatever reasons, Canada’s rapprochement with North Korea has been inactive for several years, and Canada has instead joined in imposing sanctions on that country.
But in 2018 the situation changed once more, and a possibility emerged of ending the seventy-year-old Korean War. The 2018 Olympics in North Korea thawed the ice somewhat, and Kim Jung Un (North Korea) and Moon Jae In (South Korea) met to talk of peace and security. In January 2018 Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Freeland co-hosted a Vancouver meeting on “Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula.” Yet after that meeting, Canada continued to support the American International sanctions on North Korea.
It remains to be seen what the current stance of the Canadian government will be toward North Korea, particularly after the Trump/Kim Jung Un talks. Will it continue to vacillate?
There are a number of initiatives I hope Canada adopts. First and foremost is to promote the normalizing of our relationships. It’s much better to have a direct line of communication than to depend on other sources. This initiative means that the Canadian ambassador to Seoul should be cross-appointed to Pyongyang. It also implies accepting the credentials of the North Korean nominee for ambassador to Canada, and then the establishment of a North Korean Embassy in Ottawa. And then, one may hope, it will become possible to establish diplomatic relationships with each other again. Once we were in the lead in this area. Can we be again?
We know that human relationships are key to understanding. Is the Canadian government willing to facilitate people-to-people interaction, as was once promised? This is already happening to a certain degree through the NGO community. The University of British Columbia has a lively relationship with a university in North Korea. Athletic teams visit from time to time. The Mennonite Central Committee in Canada has a sterling record in hosting North Korean delegations that seek to learn farming methods. The churches are in regular communication. These initiatives could be the foundation of public education around North Korea that, instead of demonizing that country, tries to re-frame the public discourse.
Instead of increasing pressures through sanctions and other means, could we consider instituting dialogue and engagement? This would require ending the UN Security Council sanctions and sending food security development assistance to North Korea. Only 25 per cent of land in North Korea is arable, so it needs assistance. There is a pressing need to repeal the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA) of 2011 that has choked off almost all Canadian humanitarian aid to North Korea. It also means excluding all humanitarian assistance in Korea related to SEMA and giving human right groups timely permission to deliver aid.
This will likely not be an election issue in the upcoming federal election because so few people inform themselves of the situation. Besides, Canadian policy toward North Korea has always been indecisive.
On the other hand, there was once a time in our history when we were world leaders in relating to the Korean peninsula. We are proud of our heritage and reputation as peacemakers, recognizing that peace doesn’t just happen. It takes vision, determination, and the creation of just human relationships.
As Ursula Franklin wrote, “Peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of justice and the absence of fear. There is peace when you don’t have to be afraid.”
Hon. Lois Wilson is former moderator of the United Church of Canada and a retired Canadian senator.
Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2019, page 16. Some rights reserved.
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