Macdonald-Laurier InstituteCanada should engage in ballistic missile defence in the face of the North Korean threat, writes James Fergusson. To do otherwise amounts to appeasement of North Korea and isolation from the conflict.

By James Fergusson, Sept. 26, 2017

Canadian policy on the situation on the Korean peninsula studiously avoids any direct reference to the defence of Canada. Instead, the Prime Minister not surprisingly condemns the recent North Korean nuclear test, seeks a diplomatic solution through meaningful dialogue, supports UN Security Council resolutions, and expresses a willingness to work with regional partners and the international community.

Even though North Korea has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking North America, and it is only a matter of time, if not already the case, until it equips these missiles with nuclear warheads, North Korea is not seen as a threat to Canada. Indeed, in recent testimony to the “emergency” meeting of the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence on the North Korean issue, a senior intelligence official from National Defence publically stated this belief, even adding that North Korea sees Canada as a potential “friend.”

Of course, one may take North Korea at its word. Its nuclear forces are only to deter an invasion by imperial America and its allies. One may also take solace in the fact that the North Korean regime has not mentioned Canada in its threatening rhetoric directed at South Korea, Japan and the United States. Perhaps the regime truly differentiates between Canada, the “peaceful kingdom,” and imperialist America despite its alliance relationships, North American defence cooperation as a pillar of Canadian policy, and shared values and common interests between Canada and the United States.

Why anyone would (or should) believe that Canada could have any influence in Pyongyang, or any meaningful diplomatic role in a region is a mystery.

The situation on the peninsula apparently is all a great misunderstanding to be solved by diplomacy. Indeed, much of the tenor of the questions and testimony at the Committee hearings remembering that the Committee is dominated by a Liberal majority  reflected Trudeau’s call for meaningful dialogue. Canada should become diplomatically engaged, and provide its good offices to diffuse the situation. Of course, beyond Canadian “hubris,” why anyone would (or should) believe that Canada could have any influence in Pyongyang, or any meaningful diplomatic role in a region is a mystery. One should be a little more suspect of North Korean motives relative to its apparent view that Canada is a potential “friend.”

The real elephant in the Committee room and for the government is the fear that a North Korean threat would force Canada to reverse policy and seek to participate in the US ballistic missile defence program.  Here resides a remarkable all party consensus, which places not just the North Korean threat on the margins of the real issue. According to this consensus, no one, including North Korea, would directly target Canada. Rather, the debate is about Canada as an accidental target. (No one gives any credence to the possibility that Canada might be a demonstration target to signal resolve and will to the United States.)

As for North Korea in particular, given the rudimentary state of its missile technology, a North Korean launch targeting the continental US might fall short, striking Canada by mistake. The track of a warhead targeted for the continental US flies over Canada, albeit through outer space, as would launches from China, Russia, and possibly in the future Iran.

While Lieutenant-General Pierre St. Amand, the Deputy Commander of NORAD, made it clear that it is not American policy to employ its missile defence to defend Canada, he also noted that under certain circumstances, it may have to do so. The close proximity of major Canadian cities to major American cities would leave the United States with no choice, not least to avoid radioactive fallout from a detonation in Canada.

Relying upon guilt, however, is morally reprehensible – it places US decision-makers into a moral dilemma of Canada’s making.

In effect, Canada is defended, just not all of Canada. Basically, Vancouver (Seattle), southern Ontario perhaps extending east as far as Montreal and north to Ottawa (Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Boston and New York) would be protected by the American system. As for the rest of Canada, unspoken Canadian policy is to rely upon moral guilt, NATO’s Article 5, and the implications for other allies if the United States doesn’t defend Canada.

Relying upon guilt, however, is morally reprehensible – it places US decision-makers into a moral dilemma of Canada’s making. NATO’s Article 5 only commits the United States to “such action as it deems necessary” and Article 3, rarely mentioned, commits every member “to develop and maintain their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” Finally, the other allies (NATO, South Korea, and Japan in this case) are all participants in some form in ballistic missile. Canada is not a fact especially relevant to Article 3.

Ironically, the Canadian implicit fallback to Article 5 has not led the Canadian government to issue a firm public commitment to defend the United States in the Pacific region, nor firmly stated its position relative to its formal agreement to come to the assistance of South Korea stemming from the UN-South Korean agreement in 1953. Nor has Canada ever demonstrated its resolve by participating in exercises with the United States and South Korea.

Perhaps, the government simply fears that by taking the defence of the nation seriously by engaging in ballistic missile defence (evident in the committee discussions), and meeting its military commitments in the region would make Canada a target of North Korea. If so, the government has implicitly taken the position of neutrality.

In the end, Canada, its allies and true friends, and the international community face two regrettable, but stark choices. Either live with a nuclear North Korea, with the implications being the re-introduction of American tactical nuclear weapons into the region, and possibly a future nuclear-armed South Korea and Japan, or undertake military action ideally in cooperation with China.

As for Canada’s current “do nothing” policy, it may be best summarized in two ways – appeasement of North Korea, and isolation from the conflict. Neville Chamberlain and Mackenzie King would be proud.

James Fergusson is Professor in Political Studies and a Senior Research Fellow with the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.