Canada’s foreign affairs minister and the envoy who secured the release of an imprisoned Presbyterian minister have both held talks over the last few days with senior North Korean officials about the deteriorating international situation.
Chrystia Freeland said Friday that she met with Ri Yong-ho, her counterpart from Pyongyang, during a meeting of Asian-Pacific foreign ministers last weekend in Manila.
It was not a formal meeting, only a brief exchange on the sidelines.
It was followed by a longer mid-week discussion in the North Korean capital between that country’s foreign ministry officials and the head of the Canadian delegation sent to secure the release of Toronto Presbyterian minister Rev. Hyeon Soo Lim.
Precisely what Daniel Jean said in his capacity as special envoy remains unclear, but Freeland said Canadian officials have been working hard to make sure the regime of Kim Jong-un understands that “it must get off this path which is so destructive for North Korea and for the world.”
The face-to-face meetings came at a time of extraordinary tension between U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and the regime of Kim Jong-un, which has threatened to launch a missile strike on waters off the U.S. territory of Guam some time this month.
Freeland made it clear Canada is standing firmly beside the United States and the threats were totally unacceptable.
“When they are threatened, we are there,” Freeland said in Edmonton following a meeting related to the upcoming renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“This is clearly a gravely concerning situation.”
She said it was useful for the North Korean foreign minister to hear from his counterparts last weekend how they view the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Freeland also met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, South Korea’s foreign minister and later with China’s top diplomat during a brief trip to Beijing.
A Liberal government official, speaking on background, signalled on Tuesday that in addition to the diplomatic mission to release Lim, Jean would “discuss other issues of regional concern.”
Rodong Sinmun, a North Korean newspaper affiliated with the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, reported the departure of the Canadian delegation, without mentioning the Lim case, but noted the diplomatic exchange.
“They had a wide-ranging and in-depth exchange of views on the bilateral relations and international issues of mutual concern with officials concerned of the foreign ministry,” said the report posted late Friday.
On Friday, Trump tweeted that U.S. military options are in place and the Americans are “locked and loaded” should they be attacked.
At the same time, The Associated Press reported the Trump administration has been quietly engaged in back channel diplomacy with North Korea for several months.
The contacts have occurred regularly between Joseph Yun, the U.S. envoy for North Korea policy, and Pak Song Il, a senior North Korean diplomat at the country’s U.N. mission, according to U.S. officials and others briefed on the process.
The two sides had discussions to secure the June release of American Otto Warmbier — a university student who returned home in a coma and later died — but U.S. officials speaking on background to the news agency, were unclear about whether the talks involved matters other than U.S. detainees.
Canada used a similar forum at the UN to discuss the release of Lim, a source with knowledge of the negotiations told CBC News.
An expert on North Korea said the face-to-face meetings demonstrate that Canada can open doors where the U.S. is unable — or unwilling.
“I think there’s a lot of room for Canada to be more active,” said Tina Park, executive director of the Toronto-based Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.
Despite having been one of the main troop contributing countries during the Korean War, Park said the North Korean regime recognizes the peaceful gestures made since the 1950s.
“Canada enjoys a very different position, having a reputation as an honest broker, having a track record of sending humanitarian aid and really championing global humanitarianism,” she said.
Canada was not at the table for the so-called six-party talks, involving China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, which have attempted to find — in fits and starts — a way to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
Park said each of the countries have different interests and perhaps Canada could start by offering to facilitate a multilateral meeting.