Standing shoulder to shoulder in Ottawa last month, Chrystia Freeland and Rex Tillerson announced details of the meeting of international foreign ministers to discuss denuclearization in North Korea. While Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un were trading death threats through the media, the summit was being billed as a multilateral alternative led by Canada, a middle power imbued with what British foreign secretary Boris Johnson praised as an “instinct for peace.”
All photographs in this piece are by Andrew S. Wright for National Observer with files from Ed Ngai
But compromises were in short supply at the Foreign Ministers’ Summit on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula. According to Tillerson, the U.S. Secretary of State, the participants agreed broadly that sanctions must be better enforced and no negotiations can occur without the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
“For North Korea, the regime, what we hope they are able to realize is the situation only gets worse,” Tillerson said. “It gets worse with each step they take; it gets worse with time.”
In contrast, the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, campaigned on a “two-track” policy: pursuing dialogue and sanctions simultaneously. Last week, North and South Korea held their first high level meeting in two years to discuss the 2018 Winter Olympics. Moon called the tenuous contact “a good starting point.”
Dialogue and sanctions “must be pursued in complementarity,” Kang said. “The complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea remains the unwavering goal of the [South] Korean government and international community.” She was not made available to the press after the summit.
Unsurprisingly, the conference made few concessions to the Chinese position, which calls for negotiations to begin after both North and South Korea to suspend military exercises. The U.S. government says “freeze for freeze” is a thinly-veiled attempt to weaken the U.S.-South Korean alliance: about 25,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in South Korea, conducting massive joint drills each spring.
“We reject a freeze for freeze approach, in which legitimate defensive military exercises are placed on the same level of equivalency as [North Koreas]’s unlawful actions,” Tillerson said.
Whether the Chinese would be invited was subject to intense speculation leading up to the summit. Initially, Canada expressed hope that the Chinese would be able to participate, but the U.S. Department of State rejected the plan last week. Without an invitation in hand, the Chinese government slammed the conference.
“From the beginning, China considers the meeting meaningless and firmly opposes it,” said Lu Kang, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry.
The twenty countries that fought on the U.N. side during the Korean War did reach common agreement on tangential issues. According to Freeland, summit participants “seek neither regime change nor collapse.” Highlighting new multilateral commitments to maritime interdiction and “capacity building”-- helping third countries impose and enforce sanctions-- “the best next step to take is to ensure the sanctions already in place with U.N. approval are actually fully implemented,” she said.
At day’s end, however, Canada’s multilateral campaign may have done little but tar all twenty countries’ position papers into a monolithic demand for total denuclearization -- a demand the U.S. has made fruitlessly for a decade.