5 December 2017

Canada’s misguided debate on North Korea’s missiles

Matt KordaAndrea Berger

Andrea Berger

Andrea Berger is a senior research associate at the...

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Matt Korda

Matt Korda is a researcher in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, where he focuses on strategic stability dynamics and Northeast Asian nuclear...

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Many Americans may not be aware of the extent to which their domestic debates—especially those relating to national security—tend to spill over their northern border. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously likened the Canada-US relationship to sleeping with an elephant: “No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

Right now, there is an unevenly tempered, orange-hued elephant in the room, trumpeting ballistic missile defense as an answer to the growing North Korean missile threat. Within the first few hours of landing in Japan in November, Trump was heard chastising what he called his “samurai” hosts for not attempting to shoot down the North Korean missile tests that recently overflew the country. Those comments follow a string of overconfident claims that missile defense would have no problem taking North Korean rockets out of the sky.

Trump’s obsession with ballistic missile defense is now spreading to Canada and skewing the country’s conversation over its role in addressing the North Korean nuclear threat. In particular, it has triggered a seriously misguided debate about whether Canada should join the US ballistic missile defense to counter a mostly non-existent North Korean threat to the Canadian homeland.

The supposed threat.

The question of Canadian participation in the US Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD)—a system designed to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles fired from across the Pacific—has dominated Canadian headlines all summer. And it shows no signs of going away any time soon, with new op-eds in support of the proposal emerging after every North Korean provocation.

Calls to make sure Canada is “at the table” for GMD launch decisions increased dramatically after hearings on North Korea were held by Canada’s Parliament in September. In those meetings, Lt. Gen. Pierre St-Amand—the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s second-in-command, who is also the commander of NORAD’s Canadian element—stated that “US policy is not to defend Canada” from a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile, which could be launched at Canada deliberately (in a type of demonstration shot) or accidentally.

The deputy commander’s comments have strengthened the emerging narrative that Canada is “defenseless” and that participating in GMD is “common sense” given Pyongyang’s threats. These arguments have gained backing from Canada’s opposition Conservative Party, but also from a handful of political figures on the other side of the aisle. Parliament has now commissioned a study on the subject of defending Canada from Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. In the wake of North Korea’s Hwasong-15 launch of November 28, it was revealed that the federal government is even revising its emergency procedures to prepare for the possibility of a North Korean missile strike on Ottawa, the country’s capital. 

But Canada is not a North Korean target. In fact, at the moment, North Korea rarely ever mentions Canada except to characterize it as a “peaceful” and “friendly” country. And this attitude of Pyongyang’s seems to be reinforced by the fact that Canada doesn’t appear on North Korea’s published target maps. (North Korea’s leadership appears to believe that showing off the targets of their nuclear weapons enhances their deterrent credibility—so Korea-watchers have a somewhat reasonable grasp of who the country might take aim at in an escalating crisis.)

Pyongyang has repeatedly stated that it does not intend “to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the countries that do not join in US military actions” against it—a point recently reaffirmed by North Korea’s foreign minister. That characterization currently extends to Canada. But placing critical GMD assets on Canadian soil, or otherwise becoming closely involved in US missile defense, is a sure-fire way to make North Korean military planners pay more attention to Canada.

For an example of this dynamic, Canada need look no further than what many regard as its mother country. The UK’s former defense minister, Michael Fallon, recently argued that the United Kingdom needs to keep its nuclear deterrent because of the threat from North Korea—a shameful confusion of the North Korean capability to reach the UK with the intent to strike it. North Korea, somewhat reasonably, called Fallon’s remarks “reckless” and “an impertinent fake excuse to justify their pursuit of nuclear weapons modernization.” They added that “whoever it is, getting recklessly involved in the confrontation between the DPRK [North Korea] … and the US is a foolish act tantamount to jumping into the fire with fuel.” Canada, like the United Kingdom, should avoid letting its defense policy and related messaging make its prophecies of a North Korean threat self-fulfilling.

Some have advocated for joining the GMD on the premise that Canada could be attacked if North Korea “gets the math wrong” and accidentally hits Vancouver instead of Seattle, or Toronto instead of Detroit. Ignoring the fact that neither Seattle nor Detroit appear to be on Pyongyang’s target lists—as Jeffrey Lewis noted on his Arms Control Wonk blog—this argument echoes the all-too-common assumption that North Korea is technologically incompetent. Yet Canada is only having this debate because North Korea has spent 2017 demonstrating its rapidly advancing missile capabilities. As we are learning the hard way, give Pyongyang enough time and it will address remaining technical issues in its missile programs.

Alliance security.

Even if a missile was headed for Canada, it is hard to imagine the United States not attempting to intercept it, even if it is not specifically enshrined in US defense policy. A nuclear warhead landing north of the border would still have major consequences for the United States, not least because Canada is part of the NATO alliance and such an attack would trigger an Article 5 response. If a missile is flying at North America, it is hard to envision time-pressed US decision-makers doing anything but following pre-set rules of engagement, whatever the target’s postcode.

Though it was barely reported in Canada, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis cast the whole abandonment scenario as unfathomable. When informed about St-Amand’s remarks, Mattis incredulously replied: “He said the US was not responsible for protecting Canada?” Mattis then assured Canadians that he had “no concerns whatsoever” about the situation postulated. “This is a relationship that has been many decades in the making… It doesn’t start with us. It will not end with us.”

All of these flawed assumptions—from the alleged North Korean threat to Canada to supposed American ambivalence—come on top of the technical deficiencies of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system itself. Trump has said that the probability of a successful intercept is “so high” and “we have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97 percent of the time, and if you send two of them it’s gonna get knocked out.” As Ankit Panda (senior editor of The Diplomat) and Vipin Narang (professor of political science at MIT) have spelled out in detail, those assessments are a spectacular example of statistical gymnastics: The official record is ten intercepts in 18 attempts under highly-scripted testing conditions. Weather and darkness tend to result in test postponement, for example.

Reorienting Canada’s North Korea Conversation.

Grounding a missile defense debate in fears of a North Korean strike on Canada is senseless. That threat is largely non-existent. Assumptions around US decision-making are flawed. The system is imperfect (to be kind and Canadian about it), as well as enormously expensive. Ultimately, participating in it could make Canada less, not more, secure regarding North Korea and other nuclear-armed countries that might target a GMD system in a crisis.

Despite these flaws, Trump might request that Canada contribute to the system anyway. He likes walls—especially walls that other countries pay for. And he might view the prospect of Canadian GMD participation as free money for his big, beautiful “wall in the sky”—as University of Exeter professor of strategic studies Patrick Porter has described it.

If Washington wants Ottawa to make a greater contribution to addressing threats emanating from the Korean Peninsula, however, steering them towards missile defense is not the answer. Instead, Canada’s discussion should be holistic, covering sanctions policy, the promotion of dialogue with Pyongyang, cyber threat mitigation, and human rights in North Korea. Canada’s recent announcement of its plans to co-host a ministerial meeting on North Korea in early 2018 to discuss peaceful and diplomatic solutions to the crisis should therefore be lauded. Its efforts are best aimed at these areas, not at missile mirages.