Vancouver Vaudeville: Much Ado about Nothing?

At times of heightened international tension the first duty of diplomacy is simple to define, harder to practice: providing a venue for the meeting of otherwise warring minds. In co-hosting, with the United States, the ‘Vancouver Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula’ on January 16, Canada was guilty of rank diplomatic malpractice, conducting a one-sided, rag-tag chorus of mainly minor voices singing (not always harmoniously) from Washington’s War Build-Up Hymnbook, while exhorting major voices, excluded from the meeting, to do more.

VANCOUVER_BC_Jan 16_2018: The official foreign minister's 'family photo' during the summit concerning the security and stability on the Korean Peninsula, held at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Photo by Kim Stallknecht

VANCOUVER_BC_Jan 16_2018: The official foreign minister’s ‘family photo’ during the summit concerning the security and stability on the Korean Peninsula, held at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Photo by Kim Stallknecht

Aside from Japan and South Korea, regional powers with existential stakes in the outcome of the roiling nuclear crisis, the countries “from across the globe” selected to demonstrate “global solidarity” and represent “the international community” were Australia, Belgium, Colombia, Denmark, France, Greece, India, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey and the UK. What did they all, plus Canada and America, have in common? According to an official summary of the meeting provided by its co-chairs, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland:

Nearly seven decades after these states stepped up to restore stability on the Korean Peninsula, Ministers unequivocally declared that North Korea will never be accepted as a nuclear power.

Yes, incredibly, the meeting reassembled the “sending states” in the UN Command waging scorched-earth war in Korea from June 1950 to July 1953, a conflict causing over two and a half million deaths – including 33,000 Americans and 516 Canadians – and tenuously ‘concluded’ by an armistice still unconverted to a peace treaty. Meanwhile, after much mixed messaging from Canadian officials, it emerged Pyongyang’s two key allies in the War, China (which suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties) and Russia, had not been invited to take part, but were ‘welcome’ to wait in another room to be briefed, an ‘invitation’ indignantly declined.


As a PR exercise, the Vancouver meeting was a domestic and international disaster. As the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbotson predicted on January 9: “With nothing specific on the agenda, one wonders what is to be gained by reassembling the coalition of nations that fought against North Korea.” On January 11, University of British Columbia Asia expert Professor Paul Evans asked rhetorically:

Is it going to be middle-power multilateralism, where we bring countries together, the like-minded and not like-minded, to fashion some solutions that will be supportive of what the big guys are going to be doing? Or is this coalitional activity with our American friends, signalling we are onside with them come hell or high water?

The day before the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called it “pernicious and detrimental.” On January 10, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang accused the organizers of “Cold War thinking” which “will only create divisions…and harm join efforts;” on January 17, he noted the “most important relevant parties of the Korean peninsula issue haven’t taken part…so I don’t think the meeting is legitimate.”

A photo from the Korean Sport and Olympic Committee shows South Korean (white jersey) and North Korean (red jersey) women ice hockey team players talking during a training session in Jincheon, South Korea, on Jan. 28. (Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

A photo from the Korean Sport and Olympic Committee shows South Korean (white jersey) and North Korean (red jersey) women ice hockey team players talking during a training session in Jincheon, South Korea, on Jan. 28. (Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The same point was even stressed by one of the participants, Japan, on January 10, when a foreign ministry spokesperson described the invitees as “not necessarily the 17 countries most affected by North Korea.” Perhaps reflecting his frustration at the molehill height of the summit, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono stole the show by half-downplaying, half-denouncing the fledgling diplomatic rapprochement of the two Koreas in advance of February’s Winter Olympics:

I am aware that some people argue that because North Korea is engaging in inter-Korean dialogue, we should reward them by lifting sanctions or by providing some sort of assistance. Frankly, I think this view is just too naïve. I believe that North Korea wants to buy some time to continue their nuclear missile programme.

In her opening remarks, Freeland gamely insisted the “states represented at this meeting harbour no hostility toward North Koreans; on the contrary, we seek neither a regime change nor a collapse.” All they sought, in fact, was “a decision by the regime to verifiably abandon all of its WMD [weapons of mass destruction] programs… It is up to North Korea to choose the future it wants for itself.”

The Kim leadership, of course – learning the lessons of recent regime change wars in two WMD-renouncing nations, Iraq and Libya – has already chosen a nuclear future, embracing the ‘logic’ of deterrence as the key to ‘peace through strength.’ In his closing remarks, Tillerson – having castigated with a straight face “North Korea’s frequent attempts to divide us” from China and Russia – sketched in harsher terms than Freeland the destructive consequences of Pyongyang failing to take the very step, unilateral disarmament, it believes will lead to its downfall. Asked if “Americans need to be worried about a possible war,” Tillerson replied that if North Korea “does not choose the pathway” of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” then “they themselves will trigger an option.”


But is this stark ‘choice’ – certain to be interpreted as ‘surrender or be defeated’ – the only option? Outside the Hall, the Vancouver Women’s Forum on Peace and Security on the Korean Peninsula, a delegation of 17 experts representing 216 civil society groups in 47 countries in Asia, Europe and North America, issued a January 16 statement  outlining five urgent steps back from the brink: immediately engaging “all relevant parties in dialogue, without precondition”; replacing the “strategy of maximum pressure” with a phased lifting of sanctions “which have deleterious effects on the North Korean people”; extending the “spirit of the Olympic truce” with negotiations to implement the ‘double freeze’ long advocated by China and Russia – no US-South Korean military exercises (widely seen as rehearsals for invasion), and no North Korean nuclear or missile tests; the opening of negotiations to finally “replace the Armistice Agreement with a Korea Peace Agreement;” and strict adherence by all relevant parties to “all the Security Council recommendations on Women, Peace, and Security, in particularly…Resolution 1325 [2000], which acknowledges that the meaningful participation of women in all stages of conflict resolution and peace building strengthens peace and security for all.”

This last recommendation formed the basis of an earlier (January 4) appeal from the Forum to Freeland, Tillerson and all invited foreign ministers to request the inclusion of the 17 experts, many of them, representing “civil society organizations from countries that fought in the Korean War,” feeling a “responsibility and moral duty to help their governments formally end the 65-year-old” conflict “diplomatically and peacefully.” The letter stressed that “by supporting” such “active and meaningful” input, ministers’ will “have the chance to hear new insights, perspectives and solutions, particularly from those who would be most impacted by a renewed military conflict, and those who have most to gain from ensuring an era of dialogue and diplomacy.”

Music to the ears, one would think, of a Canadian government dedicated – rhetorically, if not yet in terms of resources – to a ‘National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.’ On January 8, Patti Talbot, chair of Global Partnerships at the United Church of Canada, argued, “this is a crucial case of whether or not that [Action] Plan is more than a piece of paper. We now look to our government to make good on their word about our country’s feminist foreign policy.”

Not only, though, did the letter’s “warm greetings” receive a cold reception, the insult of lip-service was added to injury, with the co-chairs’ summary noting “the important role” of “civil society actors in supporting efforts to foster the conditions for a diplomatic solution and, in particular, the critical role of women and women’s organizations…in contributing to conflict resolution.”

Box ticked: door slammed.

On January 25, the world-famous ‘Doomsday Clock’ of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in Chicago was moved to two minutes to ‘midnight’, 30 seconds closer than last year and “the closest the Clock has ever been to Doomsday,” in the words of a powerful statement identifying not just the Korea Crisis but a general “breakdown in the international order,” particularly with regard to arms control and disarmament, for “making the world security situation as dangerous as it has been since World War II.” And as if in response to the Vancouver Vaudeville, the statement notes that “international diplomacy has been reduced to name-calling, giving it a surrealistic sense of unreality.”

Way to go, Canada: moving the hands of the clock forward, not back.



Sean Howard



Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.