Jean Lee: Enhancing Engagement with North Korea: What Canada can do

What were some of the most important outcomes of the recent Moon-Biden summit?

The summit produced a very robust joint statement, which included cooperation on a global vaccine alliance and supply chain logistics. There was a great show of unity between President Biden and President Moon. It served as a reminder that this relationship, which was forged on the battlefield, remains relevant today. Nonetheless, it was also a reminder that the Korean War has not yet been resolved. Biden and Moon took this opportunity to signal to China and North Korea that the military alliance remains strong, despite some tense discussions held under the previous administration.

The US announced that it would be lifting restrictions on South Korea’s ballistic missile development. This kind of messaging was well-calculated. It implies that America and South Korea stand strong against their adversaries. This decision is in line with the rest of President Biden’s foreign policy decisions. He is showing that the US is putting alliances at the center of its foreign policy and diplomacy. This was a good result for both countries, particularly considering how tumultuous the relationship had become under Trump.

The US-South Korea alliance is a strong example to other Indo-Pacific nations of what developing countries can achieve when they partner with the United States. South Korea has thrived and elevated itself to become an equal partner. There was a larger message directed towards the wider Indo-Pacific concerning the necessity of alliances across the region to counter China’s rise.

The US recently lifted a 42-year restriction on South Korea’s missile development program which now allows South Korea to develop ballistic missiles capable of reaching targets far beyond the peninsula. What calculation wen in to this decision and what impact will it have?

It is no coincidence that this was announced at the summit. Symbolically, it is a recognition of South Korea’s desire for more sovereignty, independence, and decision-making on the Korean peninsula. The decision is also a show of recognition from the US that South Korea can be trusted to take control over its weapons program. The ability for South Korea to develop these capabilities could certainly raise some concerns for other countries in the region, particularly China and North Korea. We could interpret this as part of a larger effort between the US and South Korea to address the threats posed by these two adversaries.

This latest development could also be grounds for more provocation and tension between the two Koreas. North Korea will use any excuse as an opportunity to build up it nuclear weapons. There has been growing concern over the possibility of an enhanced arms race in the region. South Korea is a signatory to the NPT and presently has no nuclear weapons. However, there have been calls for South Korea to build nuclear weapons to deter North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal.

What are the calculations behind North Korea’s military provocations towards its neighbors? What threat does North Korea pose generally, to the geopolitical stability in the region?

The capacity to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is an incredible source of pride for the North Korean regime. North Korea is a small country surrounded by superpowers and always has been. been under threat of absorption and attack by the Japanese, the Chinese, and, as North Korea would claim, the Americans. Thousands of years of fear of attack from foreign forces has shaped the Korean identity and informed desire for self-preservation. The Kim family has exploited these fears masterfully, crafting a narrative to justify the development of these capabilities. As an impoverished country that had so often seen itself as being at the mercy of much larger powers the ability to develop nuclear weapons is an incredible source of pride for North Koreans.

North Korea does legitimately view its capabilities as a source of self-defence. They recognize that their nuclear arsenal makes them relatively untouchable. However, over time we have given North Korea the space to develop truly terrifying WMDs. North Korea has violated the UN Security Council resolutions countless times with missile tests, which are meant to draw attention to the regime’s arsenal. Part of North Korea’s strategy is to remind the world that is has the capability to cause regional insecurity and instability. North Korea can also stifle the global community’s attempts at nuclear non-proliferation if it so chooses. It is a source of power for the regime. Provocations and tests are highly strategic, designed largely to address some need for unity at home, and remind the world of their growing nuclear arsenal.

Could Canada support tougher sanctions to further deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions? How can Canada encourage North Korea to act as a responsible member of the international community and abide by principles set forth by the UN? 

When I was Pyongyang, I saw Canadians working as part of NGOs and representing the government. I saw Canada as an interesting opportunity to engage North Korea, because you don’t have this historical baggage that exists for Americans. Western, liberal democracies like Canada, that are vested in promoting the rules-based international order have opportunities to engage with North Korea, because you don’t have this complicated history with .

Since 2010, Canada has chosen to side with nations that have taken a tougher stance on North Korea, including the United States. The best way to change North Korea’s behavior is through alliances, and multilateral agreements that seek to address nuclear proliferation. Throughout the years, North Korea has become increasingly clever at defying sanctions. For Canada, the commitment to offering its resources to enforce sanctions is hugely significant—practically and symbolically. Operation Neon was primarily maritime. This is hugely important because satellite imagery has shown that the regime is engaged in ship-to-ship transfers of oil, which is banned under the UNSC resolutions. Canada’s presence in the region demonstrates its commitment to upholding the global sanctions regime.

The people of North Korea are the victims of this regime. We do not have a good sense of what is happening inside North Korea, partly because their border has been sealed since January 2020. Having spent time there, I can tell you it is certainly not pretty. Sanctions are a difficult topic. I believe that sanctions can be a good diplomatic tool, but many North Korean citizens have suffered in the process. We have to develop ways to sanction the North Korean regime without harming its people. The ultimate responsibility lies with the regime, which is holding their people hostage. Canada, in partnership with other countries, can certainly help with the overall objective of compelling North Korea to come out of isolation, and negotiating a deal that reduces the threat posed by the regime’s nuclear arsenal.

Kim Jong Un has exploited the pandemic to seal North Korean borders and stop the flow of information. He is better able to shape the narrative around what is happening inside North Korea under these circumstances. It is much harder for us to tell what is happening inside the country, which is concerning. What is happening on the ground is very different than the way it is portrayed in their state media. We need people on the ground in North Korea— foreigners, English teachers, aid workers, diplomats, and journalists. However, that is not possible right now. Things are going to be far more economically difficult following this protracted period of isolation. The stakes will be much higher for North Korea. That means negotiations are going to be tougher.

Kim Jong Un ultimately wants to return to negotiations, but he wants to return in a stronger position. That means there may be further provocations down the line. We need to remember that the threat is there, and it has only grown over time. We seem to have forgotten about it amidst the pandemic. The people of North Korea, and South Korea are the ones who are going to pay the price.

The Canadian Centre for Cyber Security said that foreign threat actors trying to influence all facets of Canadian life online is now the new normal. The CCCS 2020 threat report stated that state-sponsored programs, which included North Korea’s, pose the greatest strategic threat to Canada. What threats do North Korean cyber criminals pose to Canada? 

Sanctions on North Korea are very restrictive. They are designed to stop the flow of hard currency into the country, which could be routed to the nuclear program. North Korean cyber crime has proven to be very lucrative.

The threat from North Korea’s cyber capabilities is twofold. They can make money from criminal activity in cyber space to bring in hard currency, but they are also using cyber crime as a form of asymmetric warfare. North Korea recognizes that countries, including South Korea, the United States and Canada are increasingly dependent on technology. They view this as a vulnerability—there is the potential to disrupt society, cause chaos, and hold societies hostage through technology. Canada is very vulnerable. Not just to the threat from North Korea, but from cyber actors around the world. In particular, the North Koreans are suspected to have been involved in the WannaCry ransomware attack, which targeted 150 countries. Canadian citizens have been implicated—not only as victims, but allegedly, as recruits by the North Koreans to help carry out their operations.

North Korean cyber capabilities are quite sophisticated, strategic, and carefully managed. We suspect that it goes all the way to the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RBG), which is North Korea’s intelligence agency. Cyber crime is being orchestrated, not only at the very top levels, but in a very secretive fashion, and in coordination with government entities. That means there may be scores of North Koreans working overseas in secretive circumstances, perhaps not even on North Korean passports, because they are operating under the umbrella of intelligence. It makes the already volatile security environment even more precarious.


Jean H. Lee is a veteran foreign correspondent and expert on North Korea. Lee led the Associated Press news agency’s coverage of the Korean Peninsula as bureau chief from 2008 to 2013. In 2011, she became the first American reporter granted extensive access on the ground in North Korea, and in January 2012 opened AP’s Pyongyang bureau, the only U.S. text/photo news bureau based in the North Korean capital. She has made dozens of extended reporting trips to North Korea, visiting farms, factories, schools, military academies and homes in the course of her exclusive reporting across the country.

Lee served as a Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar and Global Fellow before joining the Asia Program as Korea Center program director. She has contributed commentary and feature stories to the New York Times Sunday Review, Esquire magazine, the New Republic and other publications. She appears as an analyst for CNN, BBC, NPR, PRI and other media, and serves frequently as a guest speaker on Korea-related topics. She is a member of the National Committee on North Korea, the Council of Korean Americans, the Asian American Journalists Association, the Pacific Council. She serves on the World Economic Forum’s Global Futures Council on the Korean Peninsula. 

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