The good news is that despite its often colourful and bizarre threats to annihilate its foes, the regime in North Korea does not see Canada as a threat, Canadian diplomatic officials told a parliamentary committee in Ottawa Thursday.
“In fact on the contrary, in recent contacts with the North Korean government, including in August, when our national security adviser was in Pyongyang, the indications were that the perceive Canada as a peaceful and indeed a friendly country,” said Mark Gwozdecky, the assistant deputy minister for international security at Global Affairs Canada.
“We don’t sense a direct threat,” Gwozdecky told the House of Commons standing committee on national defence hearing into whether Canada is ready for an attack by North Korea
The bad news is that if Pyongyang changes its mind or an errand North Korean ballistic missile aimed at Seattle, for example, heads for Vancouver instead, Canada has no capabilities to defend itself against such an attack, said a top Canadian general.
‘U.S. policy is not to defend Canada’
And under the current U.S. policy, the American military would not protect its northern neighbour from such an attack, said Lt.-Gen. Pierre St-Amand, the Canadian deputy commander of the binational North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD).
“The extent of the U.S. policy is not to defend Canada,” said St-Amand. “That’s the fact I can bring to the table.”
St-Amand said because Canada is not part of the U.S. ballistic missile defence (BMD) program, Canadian military personnel posted to NORAD would have no role in deciding what to do if a ballistic missile from North Korea or any other country was detected heading toward North America.
They would instead be passive observers, waiting to see whether U.S. officials would in fact decide to shoot down a missile or missiles heading toward Canada.
St-Amand’s testimony shattered a long-standing Canadian myth that the Americans will defend Canada against incoming missiles, Rob Huebert, a professor at University of Calgary who also testified at the hearing, told Radio Canada International.
“We are completely deluding ourselves if we automatically assume that under every single possibility the Americans will come to the forefront and defend us,” said Huebert, who teaches strategic studies.
Given the limited number of interceptor missiles available to U.S. commanders, they might feel compelled to reserve their missiles in case of a multiple missile launch by North Korea, Huebert said.
Ensuring regime survival
Pyongyang’s quest to acquire nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the United States is aimed at ensuring the stability and the long-term survival of Kim Jong-un’s regime, said Stephen Burt, Assistant Chief of Defence Intelligence, of the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command.
Pyongyang also wants to be treated as an equal to Washington, Burt said.
“And Pyongyang appears to believe that this will only be achieved if it’s recognized as a nuclear power,” Burt said.
“If we take their statements are face value, there are signs that the government in Pyongyang may be willing to talk so long as there are no preconditions, including international demands that it give up its nuclear program.”
Pyongyang maintains that its nuclear weapons are the most dependable and realistic guarantee for peace on the Korean peninsula.
Burt downplayed the possibility of a missile attack on North America.
“If you go back to the fact the regime in North Korea is primarily motivated by its desire to survive and sustain its rule … While their rhetoric is colourful and their behaviour occasionally strikes us as peculiar, they’re no fools, and they understand the consequences of that kind of an action,” Burt said.
Seeking nuclear deterrent
The development of an effective nuclear deterrent has been a key long-term goal for North Korea for some time now, Burt said.
To achieve this deterrence, the North Korean regime has indicated that it wants to be able to target North America with nuclear weapons and has conducted six underground nuclear tests, Burt said.
North Korea claims that its latest test on Sept. 3 involved a miniaturized thermonuclear weapon designed to be mounted on an ICBM, which can deliver a high-altitude electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) strategic attack, he said.
“These claims are credible but unverified,” Burt said.
The tests have demonstrated real advances in the North Korean nuclear weapons program, he said.
Building a nuclear arsenal
Pyongyang’s possible detonation of a thermonuclear device suggests it will be able to produce an arsenal of high-yield nuclear warheads without the need to produce additional weapons-grade fissile material.
“Nevertheless, Defence Intelligence judges that North Korea will continue to increase its stockpile of weapons-grade fissile material,” Burt said.
It is difficult to determine accurately how many nuclear warheads North Korea may possess or may be capable of producing, he said.
“Our low-confidence estimate is that it probably possesses a number of nuclear devices capable of being delivered by shorter-range missiles and that it aspires to having a deliverable intercontinental nuclear capability,” Burt said. “We judge that it has produced enough fissile material for at least 30 devices.”
North Korea is also widely believed to have offensive chemical and biological weapons programs but might not have the means for their intercontinental delivery, he said.
Advances in ballistic missile program
Pyongang is also aggressively pursuing a ballistic weapons program of various ranges, including ICBMs, Burt said.
In July, it twice tested the Hwasong-14 ICBM demonstrating that it can reach Canada and the majority of the U.S., he said.
“While we do not have proof of a fully-functional nuclear ICBM, given the progress they’ve made so far, we believe it’s only a matter of time before North Korea develops a reliable nuclear armed ballistic missile,” Burt said.
The majority of experts testifying before the committee urged Canada to get more diplomatically involved, including re-establishing more regular direct contacts with North Korean officials, in trying to find a solution to the crisis before things get out of hand.
But seeking a diplomatic solution to such a complicated issue is akin to running a super-marathon, they warned.
“Diplomacy requires a great deal of patience,” Gwozdecky said. “The efforts that resulted in the nuclear agreement with Iran took more than a decade of painstaking diplomatic negotiation to try to change the threat perception that Iran had from the West and make it understand that it could achieve its goals through a diplomatic solution and not through armament.”
For now Washington and Pyongyang seem to be locked in the pre-negotiating phase of the crisis where both sides are trying to improve their leverage by the time they reach the negotiating tables, Gwozdecky said.
“But I think North Korea is not immune to the fact the international community, including major Western powers, are consistently advocating that it abandon its aggressive posture and engage in diplomatic solutions,” he said.