Canada, allies to discuss whether to start intercepting North Korean vessels
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers his New Year's speech at an undisclosed place in North Korea Monday, Jan. 1, 2018. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, January 11, 2018 4:00PM EST
Last Updated Thursday, January 11, 2018 5:34PM EST
OTTAWA -- Canada and its Korean War allies will sit down in Vancouver next week to mull ways to tighten the screws on North Korea -- including whether to intercept North Korean shipping.
U.S. State Department officials confirmed that China and Russia were not invited to Tuesday's meeting, which Canada is co-hosting with the U.S. in response to North Korea's recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
Instead, only those countries that deployed troops as part of the United Nations during the Korean War between 1950 and 1953 have been invited to participate in the discussions, which China has blasted as "Cold War thinking."
More than 25,000 Canadians served as part of UN Command during the war, of which 516 died. Canada was one of 17 countries to contribute troops to the UN force.
The Vancouver meeting is expected to put a heavy emphasis on finding ways to crack down on the many smuggling and money-laundering schemes that Pyongyang has employed to sidestep sanctions and pay for its nuclear program.
The Trudeau government has provided little information in the days leading up to the Vancouver summit, despite being a co-host, and appears to be instead consumed with the threat of a trade war with the U.S.
But Brian Hook, director of policy for U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said the plan is to come up with concrete ways that Washington and its allies can strengthen the "maximum-pressure campaign" on North Korea.
One of the options to be discussed, he said, would be naval interdiction to stop North Korean smuggling.
"We will be discussing with our partners and allies the kind of steps that we can take on maritime interdiction and to be disrupting funding and disrupting resources," Hook said during a briefing in Washington, D.C. on Thursday.
"And maritime interdiction helps us to disrupt resources and then the financial side helps us to disrupt the financing of their nuclear and missile program."
Western security officials have accused Russia and China of exporting oil to North Korea in recent months, which would be a violation of UN sanctions.
Both countries have denied the charges, but the reports have nonetheless put a spotlight on the importance of maritime trade and smuggling to the North Korean government's continued survival and weapons development.
Any agreement on naval action against North Korean shipping could result in the deployment of Canadian warships and other naval vessels into the area, and is certain to spark anger and threats from Pyongyang.
But it could also put Canada, the U.S. and their allies at further odds with China, which has opposed the Vancouver meeting and warned that it will hurt -- not help -- efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff with North Korea.
"The current situation in the Korean Peninsula is very complicated and sensitive," Chinese foreign ministry Lu Kang said this week, according to a transcript from the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa.
"All parties should work to defuse tensions and promote dialogue, rather than blindly resort to pressure and isolation."
Hook, meanwhile, defended the decision not to invite China and Russia to Vancouver, which State Department under-secretary Steven Goldstein later said was made in conjunction with Canada.
Some have questioned what progress can be made without two of North Korea's most important neighbours, but Hook said the meeting was not intended to replace other efforts involving China and Russia.
"This ministerial will enhance and strengthen all of the efforts underway to achieve our policy goals," he said.
"China has the same policy goal in terms of ensuring that North Korea does not become a nuclear-weapons state and acquire the means to deliver a nuclear warhead."
The meeting comes as North and South Korean officials have held their first talks in several years, raising fresh hopes that a diplomatic solution to the crisis can be achieved.
But while Canada and the U.S. have welcomed the Korean discussions, Hook said they were unlikely to change the agenda of the Vancouver meeting or result in a short-term softening of sanctions.
"We believe that the North Koreans are starting to feel the bite of a global pressure campaign," he said.