The writer holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute and is a founding member of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
The story of North Korea’s emergence as a nuclear-weapons state is one of the most implausible tales of our time. Pyongyang is now ready, according to Dear Respected Leader Kim Jong Un, to commence mass production of nukes and intercontinental missiles. How in the world could a small and impoverished country with a tiny, distorted economy pull this off?
Careful review of that improbable record underscores the crucial role of diplomacy in this triumph of sorts. Pyongyang’s path into the select global club of declared nuclear powers was paved by — indeed, contingent upon — shrewd and successful “engagement” with an international community unremittingly opposed to the advances North Korea managed to achieve. Looking back on the past few decades of diplomatic maneuvering, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the North Koreans outclassed their counterparts, and they have the nukes to prove it.
We might want to brush up on that history now that President Trump has agreed to meet with the Dear Respected Leader before the end of May. Ignorance of the past could lead to major miscalculations.
For good or ill, the Kim regime’s strategic objectives remain essentially unchanged since 1950, when Kim Il Sung (Kim Jong Un’s grandfather) launched the surprise attack against the South that triggered the Korean War. To this day, North Korean ideology posits the unconditional reunification of the Korean people under an “independent socialist state” — and this presupposes the eradication of the existing government in South Korea.
Given South Korea’s extraordinary economic accomplishments and democratic progress, the North’s quest for unconditional absorption of the South could only begin to seem even remotely plausible if the U.S.-South Korea alliance were disbanded, U.S. troops sent home, and Washington’s nuclear guarantee withdrawn. And this is exactly where the North’s long-range nuclear missile program figures in. By pointing a nuclear pistol at Uncle Sam, the Kim family regime hopes it can eventually force the United States out of the Korean Peninsula — and thereby reset the contest against the South.
Despite its great strides over recent years, North Korea’s nuclear-missile program is not yet finished — and its completion may be compromised or even thwarted by the international community’s current, U.S.-led “maximum pressure” campaign. Because the North Korean economy is so distorted and dependent, it is especially vulnerable to sanctions.
This helps explain the sudden peace offensive against South Korea this year. Evidently, North Korea judged Seoul’s progressive, Sunshine policy-oriented government to be the most promising candidate for breaking ranks on the sanctions campaign. Peeling Seoul off might just open up the breathing space necessary to bring the North’s nuclear game up to the next level — and if Washington could be fooled into inadvertently undermining its own sanctions campaign, all the better.
So much for the strategic background to the upcoming talks in Panmunjom. Now for North Korean tactics.
North Korea has a standard retinue of negotiating ploys:
● Agenda control. A good North Korean negotiating team seizes immediate control of the agenda. Typically it will suddenly stop talks, or unexpectedly demand resumption, to throw the other side off its game. If Team North does not take control of the agenda, talks get shut down until Team North says it is time to start talking again.
● The “agreement” vanishes. No “agreement” is an agreement unless the North Koreans say it is an agreement — and it remains an agreement only as long as they say it is an agreement.
● Redefining key terms. Words mean only what the North Korean side says they mean, no matter what others may think. Take the word “independent,” as in Kim Jong Un’s entreaty to President Moon Jae-in for North and South to strive for “independent” reunification. In Kim code language, this means “no foreigners allowed” — i.e., no help from America for you. Similarly, when Pyongyang says it is willing to meet with Washington, Seoul or other parties “without conditions,” this actually means that any abrogation or violation of previous agreements by North Korea must not be discussed — that would be a “condition,” after all. By the same token, Pyongyang can always agree to Korean “denuclearization” as long as the term is defined exactly their way — that is, with South Korea “denuclearized” first, through termination of its alliance with a nuclear United Statess.
● No “win-wins.” Contrary to Asian tradition, North Korean negotiators frown on “face-saving” outcomes. From the North Koreans’ perspective, their cause is just and the adversary’s is by definition unjust — otherwise, the adversary would not be in disagreement with Pyongyang. Consequently it is not only foolish to leave anything on the table for the other side — it is positively unpatriotic. A good negotiation ends with North Korea taking everything that’s up for grabs, and also with humiliation or outright disgrace for the other side.
Can South Korean or American leaders meet with North Koreans without getting their pockets picked? Both previous North-South summits were essentially fiascos for the U.S.-South Korea alliance, and the United States was deceived and cheated in its high-level diplomacy with the North at the end of the Clinton administration.
That said: There is no intrinsic reason well-prepared Western principals need come out the worse from their exchanges with North Korea — so long, that is, as they face the real existing Kim family regime, rather than the imaginary one so many of their predecessors preferred to deal with.
A few general suggestions and guidelines:
● Never meet in Pyongyang: Those pilgrimages only afford the dictatorship free propaganda spectacles bolstering domestic legitimacy.
● Add your own agenda items, at the last minute if need be. One of these should always be North Korean human rights. Why is the regime so scared of this issue? Because its high command has Googled “crimes against humanity” and “Nuremberg.”
● Never hesitate to call the North out for bad faith, dishonesty or any of the other tradecraft it brings to negotiations. Nothing personal. We should not care about atmospherics in so doing; we should not be trying to win a popularity contest with the planet’s most heinous regime.
● No more good-faith concessions or goodwill gestures. Period. Look where those have brought us. Nothing without something tangible in return — and promises do not count. It is Pyongyang’s turn to prove its credibility — and it has a lot of making up to do.
● Be ready to walk away. A bad deal is much worse than no deal at all.
High-level meetings with North Korea are a zero-sum game. Any gains by Seoul or Washington are losses for Pyongyang — and vice versa. Team North is looking for unforced errors and extracted concessions to consolidate its nuclear status, fund its programs, split the U.S.-South Korea alliance and delegitimize the South. Team North also regards genuine peace with the South and genuine denuclearization as ominous, potentially destabilizing disasters for their regime.
From start to finish, Team West must bear in mind how their every action will affect alliance cohesion, the pressure campaign and North Korean threat reduction. Not least important: Team West must never forget that the Kim family regime is the North Korean threat — and that the ultimate guarantor of security of the Korean Peninsula, someday, will be an arrangement that does not include the North.
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