How Canada fits into Rex Tillerson's plan for North Korea -

How Canada fits into Rex Tillerson’s plan for North Korea

Paul Wells parses diplomatic history as the U.S. secretary of state arrives in Ottawa to talk North Korea


U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland in February 2017 (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

This is all a little weird.

The Korean War was mostly a big headache for Louis St. Laurent. The courtly Quebec lawyer had been Canada’s prime minister for just over seven months when North Korean forces invaded the South, on what was, in Ottawa time, a Sunday in June, 1950.

St. Laurent liked to think of himself as more activist and interventionist than his cautious predecessor, W.L. Mackenzie King, but as King’s foreign minister St. Laurent had already been whipsawed by postwar politics in Europe. There was a shattered Western Europe to rebuild after the Second World War, but the great powers elbowed Canada out of a direct administrative role in divided Berlin, and King and St. Laurent took that as their cue to bring Canada’s tired troops home. But within two years, the tightening Communist grip across Eastern Europe led to rapid re-militarization. Canada would reap no great peace dividend; Canadian troops would not be long returning to Europe, to remain for a generation.

What did Korea have to do with any of this? Already Europe’s a nuclear-tipped quagmire and St. Laurent’s supposed to worry about Korea? He hoped the new UN Security Council would be deadlocked, as it already usually was, but the Russians were boycotting it, and soon not only the Americans but the Brits, Australians, New Zealanders and the Dutch had sent warships to the region. Canada followed suit with two destroyers (my source for most of this is the writings of Blair Fraser, one of my predecessors at this magazine).

READ: Donald Trump and North Korea’s nuclear war rhetoric is frighteningly similar

By mid-July the invading North Koreans had pushed past their southern cousins and a not-yet-adequately-numerous line of defending Americans and overrun Seoul. The UN Secretary General called on all member states to defend South Korea. It was a Friday. St. Laurent was fishing. He finally drove in for the regular Wednesday cabinet meeting. Reporters waited for word from the meeting. St. Laurent had some. “Well, gentlemen, I hope to be fishing again by the day after tomorrow.”

It was August before he announced the dispatch of Canadian ground troops — a brigade that would be recruited for task, rather than assigned from regular forces. The first Canadian soldiers finally moseyed into Korea in February; the bulk of the force wouldn’t be in place until May. Canadian soldiers are often measurably more game than their leaders; these fought like hell once they’d arrived, took heavy casualties, helped push the North Koreans back and hold the line in the divided country.

WATCH: Rex Tillerson on North Korea: “All options remain on the table”

It all seemed so distant to Canadian preoccupations, even as it was happening. Writes Fraser: “At one point the Vancouver Sun ran the same Korean War story on its front page for three days running, then gleefully announced that not a single reader had noticed this fact.”

But for today’s purposes, perhaps what’s most germane about the Korean War is that as a matter of treaty law, it never ended. The 1953 armistice that ended the fighting was an agreement among armies to stop fighting, pending “a final peaceful settlement” among governments. That peace treaty never arrived. So United Nations Command — Rear, a base set up in Japan in the 1950s, has never been abandoned. Command at UNC-R rotates among several “sending nations,” meaning those that responded — however reluctantly! — to the UN’s call in 1950. That included Canada. The current Deputy Commander at UNC-R is Maj. Tammy Hiscock of the RCAF. I’m told there are about half a dozen Canadians over there all told.

This would be merely an odd coincidence of nature, a geopolitical appendix never removed, except that North Korea keeps testing ICBMs, and the Americans have been talking — since before Donald Trump was elected, it’s worth noting — about “revitalizing” the United Nations Command and the mandate and responsibilities of the “sending nations.”

READ: Should Canada help in North Korean standoff?

That’s why it’s really interesting that on Nov. 28, after the most recent and potentially destabilizing North Korean missile test, Rex Tillerson, the U.S. Secretary of State, announced a meeting “in partnership with Canada” of “the United Nations Command Sending States.” It takes a little detective work to find a current list of sending states; it seems to include Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, Philippines, Thailand, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

This is, of course, all handy background for Tillerson’s Ottawa visit on Tuesday, when he’ll meet Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. I drag you through all this diplomatic history, first, because it makes interesting reading, and also because it’s germane to the day’s events. Germane but not determinative: It would be fun if I could claim that a 64-year-old treaty locks Canada into the next chapter of land war in Asia, but there are two problems with that story.

First, this isn’t World War I; no old signature locks Canada into anything. But it does provide a basis for Canadian involvement, a reason if not a requirement, and that’s handy because Rex Tillerson, at least, is still trying to avoid a war in, around or over Korea. As he put it in his own communiqué invoking the “Command Sending States,” “Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now.” Tillerson rather famously differs from his boss, Donald Trump, on this question, and there’s been speculation it could cost Tillerson his job. This would be a serious problem for, among billions of other people, Chrystia Freeland, whose most important regular U.S. interlocutor is Tillerson. But in the meantime, Tillerson is interested in Canada, not for the trivially modest contributions it could make to a very nasty shooting war, but to the potentially greater contributions it might make to avoiding one.

Again over the public objections of his doofus boss, Tillerson has been trying to lure the North Korean regime into serious talk over alternatives to the current brinksmanship. This is a long shot: direct public talks involving Americans and North Koreans haven’t happened since the so-called six-party talks collapsed in 2009. Who could lure them back? Maybe Canada. Or maybe not. But maybe. We would at least be a fresh face, and Trudeau’s good relations with the Cuban regime might help. It’s worth a try. The alternatives to talking are nasty.

Unlike St. Laurent, Justin Trudeau will tend to see North Korea as a welcome diversion from other issues. First, because Canada would not, at this stage, be getting dragged into a fiercely kinetic ground combat, but seeking to avoid that or far worse. Second, because progress against (or with) North Korea would be a way of reasserting Canadian good faith on an issue that, policy options aside, preoccupies both the U.S. president and his Secretary of State. A reminder for all concerned, the president first among them, that Canada can be a source of solutions, not just problems.



How Canada fits into Rex Tillerson’s plan for North Korea

  1. Sorry Rex, maybe we’ll contribute a Peacekeeping Force, but that’s it.
    Remember one of your countrymen saying that there’ll be no help from the U.S. if we were invaded from the north.

  2. Paul. So your plan is to send our double doofuses Justin and Chrystia to solve the USA /Korea problem. Our strategy could be to have both cry a once and hope the Koreans have sympathy for our triggered snowflakes.
    We could also offer them money (as we usually do) with no restrictions and let Canadians pay for their nuclear program. This would also allow Trudeau to earn brownie points toward his coveted job with the useless U.N.. Do you really believe they would listen to “small potatoes” and “I love to be on TV” ? I think not.

    • Wow! Why are you not running the country? You know so much more than our PM and his cabinet. You can even sit at a computer and second guess and criticize what our government is doing. I support this government because our economy is better after 2 years of Liberals than 10 years of Reformers and they have created more jobs in 2 years than the previous 10. Pretty darn impressive!

      • I agree with Ken. ;-)

      • When a discouraged worker stops actively looking for work, they are no longer counted as “in the labour force” which causes the participation rate to fall. Since they are no longer in the labour force, these workers also no longer meet the definition of “unemployed” and thus would not be included in the unemployment rate either.

        Our current LPR is ~65%.
        Under Harper the lowest LPR was ~67%.

        Do you understand how LPR works? The lower — the worse off the labour market is! Plus — the workers are not counted in the current unemployment rate.

      • Trudeau and his gang of spendthrifts have nothing to do with the improved economy. That
        has happened due to two things Trudeau has no control over-the housing boom and our weak Canadian $ which has resulted in our exports being more competitive. The only bit of economy improving policy in Trudeau’s kit bag is infrastructure spending which he has yet to get off the launch pad. All he has contributed to date is growing debt.

      • If the PM is Liberal, no matter what his name,t he half-wit drop-outs on here insist Canada is Somalia economically, and otherwise.

        It’s all a partisan hockey game to them……nothing to do with reality.

        Fortunately Nanos has Libs 42, Cons 29

        • And according to Nanos—
          40% of Canadian’s want all this new economic wealth put towards our debt.
          40% of Canadian’s want Morneau gone.

          How much stock do you put into Nanos?

          • More than I put in your fantasies.

      • Thank you Tom, I agree with you.
        I do not think that people like Ken Bothwell are real Canadians that love this country regardless which political party is in power. They simply ignore the fats that our planet is much older then 6,000 years, that human activities do not contribute to climate changes, that scientific information is “fake news”, including statistics of unemployment rates, growth of economy… ETC. He would be “singing” a different song if his idol Harper is now PM instead of Trudeau, with the same results. What a fake!!

  3. North Korea is a problem because of all the presidents before Trump, not because of Trump. Obama and Clinton made the problem immeasurably worse, because their coup in Ukraine led to unemployed Ukrainian missile scientist and engineers turbocharging North Korea’s missile program.

  4. A part time high school drama teacher leading talks to reduce the nuclear threat from a belligerent nation.

    I can’t imagine a situation where Trudy would be more out of his depth. Seriously time to bring his water wings.

    Unless he plans to play the naive, incompetent idiot card, again.

  5. The author should do more ‘detective’ work on why formal talks–they’ve already taken place at the UN–aren’t likely to happen. But I’ll try to help. The Norks want formal talks because by agreeing to them they see that as a win-win for them. Given the likelihood of their collapse again, the Norks could claim that by agreeing to talks they fully expected something in return. If they stay they would expect to get one of two things–although as Norks they might expect to get both: a.) the removal of US troops from the south b.) goodies. Since the US under Trump is out of the appeasement game, talks are unlikely to take place.