North Koreans should beware their leader using their traditional negotiating playbook – President Trump is playing a different game

April 26, 2018

The dramatic summit between the North and South Korean leaders at Panmunjom appears to have transformed the situation on the Korean peninsula from a regional crisis into a potential miracle for the world.

Just last year North Korea defied the United States and most of the free world by launching intercontinental missiles, detonating nuclear devices and overtly threatening the US as well as the world order of nuclear non proliferation. Then North Korea’s leader announced the completion of the North Korean nuclear programme. Immediately following this announcement, North Korea took full advantage of the 2018 Winter Olympics, charmed the South Korean public and set upon a North Korean version of a Sunshine and charm policy.

Although the South Korean government has maintained a strong commitment to the ROK-US alliance, working closely with Washington DC, there will and should be differences in approach as well as methods. On the other hand, North Korea’s goals are pretty clear, as described by Jung Park of the Brookings institute;

  1. A strategy aimed at keeping and advancing its nuclear weapons program,

    2. removing the United States from the Korean Peninsula,

    3. maintaining strategic relevance in the region, and

    4. potentially trying to create conditions for unification on his terms.

    In achieving these goals the North Korean leadership enjoy the advantage of NOT having to deal with public opinion and can fabricate any “truth” that they wish. The North Koreans can also withstand horrific torment to their own people.

The North Koreans have a long heritage of tough-mindedness, beginning from the Cold War era of ruthless communism. For communists, negotiation is but one part of a comprehensive strategy.

Americans assume compromise as a natural process of bargaining, whereas the North Koreans have a very different view. By definition, a compromise is a settlement of differences by mutual concessions – an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims AND principles, by reciprocal modification of demands. On the other hand, North Koreans only seek compromise when it is in line with their own goals. HISTORY TELLS US THAT North Koreans never give their opponents SOMETHING for nothing.

Once negotiations start, the North Koreans will use every method and means to achieve their goals: threats; insults; flattery; adulation. They will delay one moment, demanding swift action the next; portray oneself as the victim seeking justice, while waiting for the opponent to reveal their goals; cause a rift among their interlocutors or create an incident to divert their focus; set preconditions for talks; exercise veto at the final phase; and renegotiate on already agreed issues.

North Korean negotiation strategy has NEARLY always had a consistent 8 step, pattern. The first three steps set the stage for negotiations, and steps 4 to 7 are deployed during the talks themselves:

1) Cause the “appearance” of tension;

2) Blame South Korea and the U.S. for the tense situation;

3) Quickly agree “in principle” to a major improvement in relations.

4) Set artificial deadlines to pressure the other side;

5) Politicize and draw out negotiations front-loading the agenda and demanding preconditions (the preconditions are often the true objectives);

6) Blame South Korea and the U.S. for the protracted talks;

7) Demand compensation or major concession, before returning to the talks

8) Step 8 “Go back to Step 1”

All of these are historical lessons. We are now dealing with a new North Korean leader, who has been educated in Europe and enjoys basketball. Another indication of what could be different is Kim Jong Un’s casual and non-traditional gestures, such as using the word denuclearization and admitting North Korea’s inferior economic situation in public, during the north-south summit of 27 April 2018. It will be worth seeing what  Kim Jong Un brings to a US-North Korea summit. It is to be hoped, therefore, that he is aware  that if he tries to use the old tactics this time, it could lead to disaster for his regime. For even though the North Koreans will have tricks up their sleeves, they will have never before dealt with a negotiator like Donald J. Trump.


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