News / Canada

Trudeau weighs calls to join ballistic missile defence in face of North Korea

Trudeau said Tuesday that North Korea’s “reckless behaviour” is a threat to global peace.

An air defence system missile flies towards a mock enemy target during the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises at a training ground near the village of Volka, some 200 km southwest of Minsk, on September 19, 2017. Worried about North Korea's ability to strike North America the Canadian government is now considering joining the U.S. missile defence system.

(SERGEI GAPON / AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

An air defence system missile flies towards a mock enemy target during the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises at a training ground near the village of Volka, some 200 km southwest of Minsk, on September 19, 2017. Worried about North Korea's ability to strike North America the Canadian government is now considering joining the U.S. missile defence system.

OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has cracked open the door to joining the U.S. ballistic missile defence program, reversing Canada’s long-standing opposition in the face of North Korea’s new capabilities to strike North America.

Trudeau said Tuesday that North Korea’s “reckless behaviour” is a threat to global peace. For months, North Korean President Kim Jong Un has conducted weapons tests that show increasing capabilities by the isolated nation.

However, Trudeau declined to comment directly on U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat at the United Nations that America would “totally destroy” North Korea if it continues its development of nuclear weapons and missiles.

“I share everyone’s concern over the reckless behaviour by the North Korean regime, and continue to believe that working with partners and allies in the region and around the world . . . is the best way to de-escalate this situation,” the prime minister told a news conference.

“As for what the president may have said, I look forward to seeing his speech myself.”

Recent testing by North Korea has revealed its ability to strike parts of North America with a missile, possibly one equipped with a nuclear warhead. That capability has restarted debate whether Canada should reverse its long-held position and join the U.S. missile defence program, designed to use land-based missiles to intercept incoming missiles.

Trudeau, who just last month said longstanding Liberal opposition to missile defence wouldn’t change “any time soon,” appeared more open. On Tuesday he said his Liberal government has not changed its position “for the time being.”

“We’re continuing to look at the situation,” he said.

“We have not changed our position at this point, but we continue to engage in thoughtful ways to ensure we’re doing everything we can and we must do to keep Canadians safe,” the prime minister said.

Lt.-Gen. Pierre St-Amand, the Canadian officer who serves as deputy commander of NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, pointedly warned that the U.S. is under no obligation to defend Canada against an incoming missile.

“We’re being told . . . that the extant U.S. policy is not to defend Canada,” St-Amand told a parliamentary committee last week.

Paul Martin’s minority Liberal government in 2005 ended negotiations to join the controversial continental ballistic missile defence plan despite pressure from the U.S. administration of George W. Bush to sign on to the shield, a decision that pleased a big chunk of the Liberal caucus and voting base, but angered Americans.

“We simply cannot understand why Canada would in effect give up its sovereignty, its seat at the table, to decide what to do about a missile that might be headed towards Canada. It's very perplexing to us,” Paul Cellucci, then U.S. ambassador to Canada, said at the time.

“There's a lot of terrorism threats directed towards the United States ... You don't have to miss by much to have a missile headed towards Canada,” Cellucci said.

Government briefing notes later by the Star revealed that bureaucrats were ready to make a strong case for Canada's participation.

While the government favoured diplomacy and disarmament to curb the missile threat, defensive measures were seen as a “prudent complement” to protect against “ongoing proliferation,” the notes said.

Since 2005, committees of the senate and the House of Commons have urged the federal government to reconsider its stance.

And the chorus of Liberal voices in support of joining missile defence has grown, including Liberal MP Mark Gerretson (Kingston and the Islands), a member of the defence committee; former Liberal parliamentary secretary of defence John McKay (Scarborough-Guildwood); former Liberal defence ministers Bill Graham and David Pratt; and retired general and Liberal-appointed senator Romeo Dallaire.

The Liberal government’s new defence policy unveiled last spring committed the government to examining “through NORAD modernization, territorial defence against all perils, including threats from cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and other future technologies to provide Canadians with greater security at home,” in the words of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s spokesperson Jordan Owens.

Canada and the U.S. jointly monitor maritime and air approaches to North America through NORAD.

Under an August 2004 amendment to its mission, Canadians at NORAD headquarters can interpret U.S. satellite and radar data about incoming missiles and transfer it to officials at the missile defence system, the United States Northern Command.

That means Canadians could track an incoming missile but be left on the sidelines during the discussion about how to respond.

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