Why the Vancouver foreign ministers’ meeting matters, even without North Korea at the table

The summit is not going to resolve the conflict between the US and North Korea. But if there is a diplomatic solution to be pursued, Vancouver is a great opportunity to start building its foundation, writes Simon Palamar.

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January 15, 2018
The Vancouver Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula will be held at the Vancouver Convention Centre. (Shutterstock)

On Monday and Tuesday, the Canadian government, along with the United States, hosts a meeting in Vancouver to discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs. As critics have aptly pointed out, Canada and the US have not invited Russia, China or North Korea to the meeting.

Does that mean the meeting is doomed to fail? Or is it a precursor to a “coalition of the willing” to end the Kim regime? While there are no guarantees that the meeting will be a success, there are reasons to think that the “Vancouver Group” could substantively help efforts to manage the conflict between the US and North Korea. This is a meeting of, for the most part, “like minded” countries. The guest list is more-or-less the United Nations Command Sending States (the countries who fought against North Korea and China in the Korean War in the 1950s) plus a few other states. So rather than an effort to begin a definitive negotiation process with North Korea, the meeting is looking more like a useful (even if insufficient) step in a long-term process to settle the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapon program.

What does settling the issue mean, in this case? It involves clarifying expectations, postures and policies among countries that already share a common goal — denuclearizing the Korean peninsula — but may not yet fully agree about how to achieve that goal. Think of it as pre-negotiation talks: before sitting down with Pyongyang, Beijing and others, the US needs to know where it stands with friends and allies. Not inviting Russia, China and, most significantly, North Korea makes some sense if the Vancouver meeting is in fact meant to be an effort to consolidate positions in the denuclearization camp, and to identify a policy approach that America’s allies can and will substantively (rather than just rhetorically) support.

It might be tempting to scoff at any effort to manage the conflict between Pyongyang and Washington that doesn’t explicitly involve the North Korean or Chinese governments. However, coalition management is critical in international affairs. Look, for example, at the White House’s dissatisfaction with the Iranian Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While the US has refused to decisively withdraw from the deal, President Donald Trump’s repeated threats to do so have caused consternation among the JCPOA’s European partners and has cast a fog of uncertainty around the future of both the US’s and Europe’s Iran policy that would otherwise be absent. For the JCPOA to work as intended, all the parties — not just Iran — need to abide by its terms. Even the threat of the US and the EU going in two different directions can put a chill on firms looking to invest in the Iranian economy, thereby de facto undermining the agreement. It stands to reason that any long-term deal to eliminate or cap North Korea’s nuclear weapon program would likewise involve several parties. Best to make sure that disagreements among allies don’t derail the process of building that solution before it even begins.

Here are a few issues to look for in Vancouver:

How to better enforce sanctions

The principal policy tool that the US has used to try to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons has been economic sanctions, designed to both disrupt Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and inflict pain on its economy with the goal of convincing the North Korean government to sit down at the proverbial negotiating table. Sanctions are obviously more effective when they are enforced. To that end, expect the US to encourage meeting attendees to redouble their efforts to make sure their domestic firms aren’t trading with North Korea. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s policy planner, Brian Hook, also suggested that the US wants to look at increasing efforts to interdict cargo vessels that may be carrying contraband to North Korea. Some of the members of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI, a Bush 43-era multilateral effort to coordinate efforts to interdict weapon of mass destruction materials on the high seas) also announced that they believed naval interdiction is a legitimate and necessary step to properly enforce UN sanctions against North Korea. Increasing naval interdiction efforts would be an escalatory step — one that involves dangerous and tricky politics, since China is not a member of the PSI. Figuring out which governments are willing to take on more risk is crucial to making it happen.

A reinforced relationship with South Korea

While the Vancouver meeting was planned before Seoul and Pyongyang began their current bilateral talks, the recent dialogue between the Koreas makes the Vancouver meeting more useful, rather than less.

Namely, the summit gives Washington and Seoul a chance to figure out how to fit South Korea’s bilateral channel into the bigger multilateral effort to constrain North Korea. Part of that discussion will be about how to make sure South Korea does not make unilateral concessions to North Korea, and how to avoid a situation where Pyongyang demands a halt to denuclearization efforts in order to keep inter-Korean talks about family reunions, conventional military matters or other bilateral issues open. Figuring out how to prevent a breach between South Korea (which has interests with North Korea that go far beyond nuclear weapons) and its security guarantor (the US) and the broader denuclearization coalition is of the upmost importance if the current moment is going to lead to increasing long-term strategic stability in Northeast Asia. Cutting North Korea and China out of the dialogue — at least for the moment — is probably wise.

The building of a unified front

If the conflict between the US and North Korea is going to be resolved diplomatically, eventually there will have to be face-to-face talks between a select group of countries. The most likely format for these talks is some variation on the Six Party formula: China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia, and the United States.

Japan, Korea and the US will be in a much better position entering into those talks if they know where they stand with each other and if they know they have a coherent and committed coalition behind them. This will make it harder for North Korea to isolate South Korea (see point two) but will also give the US a stronger position when bargaining with China. While China’s policy on North Korea has changed dramatically in recent years, and its interests on the Korean Peninsula are the closest they’ve even been to Washington’s, China and the US are still not of the same mind. A broad-based coalition that endorses American goals and negotiating tactics would give the US a relative edge in any talks.

Denuclearization — a realistic goal?

One issue that will probably not be discussed in Vancouver — but should be — is what the US should be seeking to accomplish on the Korean Peninsula. The total, peaceful and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea is still Washington’s (and many other countries’) official policy goal. But is it realistic? No country that has developed its own nuclear weapon program has ever negotiated an agreement to completely dismantle their nuclear arsenal. South Africa denuclearized unilaterally. Other countries have entered into talks that ended up with them terminating their nuclear weapon programs, but these were programs that had not yet produced a nuclear bomb.

Convincing the North Korean government to negotiate with the US under the condition that Pyongyang agree that the final goal of any talks is North Korea’s denuclearization is uncharted territory. Vancouver is an opportunity to rethink what might be an unobtainable policy goal, and to consider other targets, such as putting a quantitative or qualitative cap on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Just don’t expect this conversation to happen.

The Vancouver meeting is not going to resolve the conflict between the US and North Korea. But if there is a diplomatic solution to be pursued, Vancouver is a great opportunity to start building its foundation.