06/04/2013 04:08 EDT | Updated 08/04/2013 05:12 EDT

Canada not doing enough to engage North Korea, ex-envoy tells committee

OTTAWA - A former Canadian ambassador to North Korea says the Harper government isn't doing as much as it once did to engage the pariah state — a pullback that may be hampering its broader ambitions in Asia.

While not in the league of the United States or China, the current policy risks making Canada a non-player on the issue, said Marius Grinius, a retired veteran of both the senior diplomat corps and the Canadian Forces.

Grinius made four trips to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, while he was Canada's envoy to South Korea between 2004 and 2007.

Grinius said he believes the current Canadian envoy to South Korea has yet to present credentials to communist leaders in the North Korea in order to get a first-hand view of the closed, backward communist state.

"You have to visit Pyongyang regularly to see what's happening in the streets and elsewhere," Grinius told the House of Commons foreign affairs committee Tuesday.

"That's the way you can establish credibility and expertise. Only then can you speak with some authority, having been there."

Face time with senior cadres of the regime, as a well as a first-hand look, helps build credibility with China, North Korea's biggest ally and benefactor, he said.

The Harper government has made it an economic priority to build inroads and increase its presence in Asia, China in particular, which it views a major market for Alberta oilsands bitumen, among other things.

"In the bigger scheme of things, Canada has to look at serious engagement with North Korea as one important building block for Canada's political engagement and commitment to Asia," said Grinius.

The all-party committee of MPs was hearing from witnesses Tuesday about Canada's relations with North Korea, the rogue nuclear state that has taken a series of provocative steps since installing an inexperienced twentysomething leader, Kim Jong-un.

Kim has repeatedly threatened the United States and South Korea, conducted nuclear and missile tests, and made it clear he plans to restart a reactor that had been shut down as part of a recent disarmament agreement.

Canada has imposed sanctions on North Korea and implemented a controlled engagement policy that restricts access to a handful of topics, including human rights and regional security.

The Foreign Affairs website notes that Canada established relations with North Korea in 2001 "on the premise that engagement offers the best prospect for bringing North Korea into the international community and for promoting human rights. However, North Korea's more recent pattern of aggressive actions has led Canada to impose increasing restrictions on the relationship."

Canada restricted the relationship after the March 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy ship. An international investigation, which included three Canadian navy experts, found that a North Korean torpedo was responsible.

Grinius, who spent 33 years in the foreign service, criticized Canada's approach.

"I think that right now Canada is a marginal player on the North Korean file and is in danger of becoming a non-player," he said.

"We're not China, we're not the U.S., we're not Japan but we can still make a difference. But to have that kind of impact we have to engage the North Koreans at a high level."

He said there's no indication the sanctions Canada has imposed are making any difference.

"Quite frankly, that's not a big deal since trade has been insignificant, and Canada doesn't bear any pressure by turning off so-called Canadian trade."

Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, defended the government's position as a legitimate means of dealing with North Korea's "atrocious" record on human rights.

"We have imposed tough binding sanctions and maintained a controlled engagement policy with North Korean leadership; engaging with this reckless and irresponsible regime will only lend it the credibility and validation which it so craves," Roth said in an email.

"If North Korea chose to reverse its current course on human rights, tone down the bellicose rhetoric, and put the rights of its people before its military ambitions, the international community would respond."

Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae asked Grinius whether he thinks Canada has been "disengaging more than engaging in the last few years" on the world stage.

"Yes," came the reply.

"There has been, I think, an attitude when looking at the Koreas — South Korea: democratic, good; North Korea: communist, bad. Therefore, don't deal with them. One can cite other examples of that, of Canadian foreign policy, which I believe is wrong."