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Crisis over North Korea expected to dominate Tillerson's visit here

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OTTAWA—The North Korean nuclear crisis is expected to dominate discussions when U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits Ottawa today for meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland.

Tillerson's supper-hour visit with Trudeau is an unusual add-on to a visiting foreign minister's itinerary, but it's not unheard of and underscores the importance Canada attaches to its relations with its top trading partner and key ally.

Economic issues will be on the agenda, but Canadian and American officials say discussion about North Korea will take precedence.

Trudeau has taken a personal interest in the North Korea crisis and expressed concern about the rogue regime's ability to launch intercontinental missiles that could cross through Canadian airspace.

He has raised the possibility of leveraging Canada's traditionally good relations with Cuba as a way to make progress on North Korea's pursuit of a nuclear arsenal.

“I've had surprising conversations with places you wouldn't expect, including places like Cuba, where they actually have . . . decent diplomatic relations with the North Korean regime,” Trudeau had said last month in Charlottetown.

“And can we pass along messages through surprising conduits,” he added.

“There hasn't been huge amount of discussion around that, but it was a topic of conversation when I met President Raul Castro last year.”

The federal government so far has resisted calls to join the U.S. ballistic missile defence shield that is designed to shoot down incoming missiles aimed at North America.

Paul Martin's Liberal government opted out of the shield in the 2005, bowing to domestic political pressure mainly in Quebec, and the Conservative government of Stephen Harper avoided the issue in its near decade in power.

But the current Conservative Opposition now says it is time for Canada to talk to the U.S. about joining the program.

“For the first time beyond the Cold War, we have a credible threat to North America from ballistic missiles—and the trajectory for that missile would make parts of Canada vulnerable,” Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O'Toole said last week in a fundraising pitch to supporters.

“Rather than just planning for 'cataclysmic terms,' the Liberals should follow the Conservative Party's proposal and participate in the missile defence program, and ensure that Canada is a full partner in the defence of North America,” he added.

A senior U.S. State Department official says a range of North American and international issues will be discussed at today's meeting, including plans to host international talks in Canada on the Korean crisis.

“North Korea will certainly come up. We've got a good partnership with Canada on the issue,” a senior State Department official said yesterday, who briefed reporters ahead of Tillerson's arrival on the condition of anonymity.

“It will be a major topic of conversation.”

Freeland and Tillerson have been discussing plans for the international meeting for months, but decided to announce it last month after North Korea carried out its longest-ever missile test.

There are few details, including where and when the meeting will happen, but it will involve countries that participated in the Korean War and other key regional actors, including South Korea and Japan.

Canadian government officials say the meeting is an overdue step that will bring key players together to brainstorm a non-military solution.

They have told The Canadian Press that Tillerson saw the value in Canada taking the initiative forward.

“North Korea will occupy much of their discussion time,” a Canadian official said of today's meeting.

The U.S. official said talks also will cover the Ukraine-Russia situation and the political crisis in Venezuela, and Tillerson will address issues closer to home, including border efficiency and security and the NAFTA negotiations.

Tillerson knows Canada from past visits as an oil executive, but this is his first visit since joining the Trump administration this year.

Rumours are rampant in Washington that he might not be long for the job as his country's top diplomat, with anonymous sources telling reporters about tension between the White House and his department.

Tillerson was asked yesterday about the latest rumour—that he's already planning his resignation and has handed in a resignation letter signed for next year.

“That's ridiculous," Tillerson replied. "That's a ridiculous question.”

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