Building Bridges by Resolving
Negotiation Strategies
September 2017
North Korea and Negotiation:
Have Diplomatic Efforts Been Exhausted
Dear Clients and Friends,

Studying and analyzing foreign policy and negotiations is an excellent opportunity to learn about and improve our own negotiation skills even though very few of us work for the State Department or the National Security Council. It is in that context that I present this brief column about the North Korean standoff. The column is also summarized in the Lessons Learned bullet points at the bottom of the column.

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With Best Wishes
Raphael Lapin
North Korea and Negotiation:
Have Diplomatic Efforts Been Exhausted
As North Korea threatens the United States and the world, the National Security Council of the UN considers options available that might deter them. There are two options currently being debated, a military option or economic sanctions. 

The military option is problematic, because it would likely result in horrific loss of life in South Korea, the very partner we have pledged to protect by way of treaty. Furthermore, if just one North Korean nuclear weapon survives in such an attack, the results could be devastating.

The sanctions option comes with its own challenges. To stand any chance of success, it would require a reluctant China to stop all trade with North Korea. Additionally, we have no precedent to date where sanctions delivered a decisive blow to cause a swift lifting of hands in surrender. The time that it will take for sanctions to take meaningful effect will be too long, by which time time North Korea will have already developed a nuclear capability to hit the US mainland. Furthermore, Putin, who understands the North Korean mentality better than we in the West do, has stated categorically that they would “prefer to eat grass, rather than to give up their nuclear program” – an opinion we should consider seriously.

This leaves us with the nagging question: Has diplomacy been exhausted?

I urge you to read further and reserve judgement, before you answer a resounding “yes!” 
The Diplomatic Option
Barbara Tuchman, in her book, The Guns of August, argued that the first world war might have been averted had the European powers not jumped to conclusions as a result of a series of misjudgments, misunderstandings and misperceptions. (It was this book that guided President Kennedy’s thinking during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962)
Before we act on potential misjudgments and misconceptions, let us consider diplomacy and recognize that an effective diplomatic approach cannot begin, nor an effective resolution attempted, without a deep understanding of the true atmospherics. This involves the articulation, analysis, understanding and acknowledgement of the interests, concerns, constraints and fears of all the actors.

When we examine the interests of the key actors more closely, which are North Korea, The United States and China (in as much as they could help or hinder negotiations), a more comprehensive image begins to emerge:

  • Recognition from the world community as a legitimate sovereign state
  • Personal security for the Kim regime (he is all too aware of the fate of Qaddafi in Libya and Hussein in Iraq even after reaching deals with the US)
  • Autonomy in internal affairs
  • National security
  • Economic aid and development

  • National security
  • Nuclear non proliferation
  • Maintaining world power status
  • Integrity with regards to treaty agreements with allied partners such as Japan and South Korea
  • Prevention of nuclear weapons or technology reaching Iran and other hostile nations or terror groups

  • Regional stability
  • Good relations with her neighbors
  • Economically favorable trade deals
  • Maintaining world power status
  • A reasonably secure North Korea to avoid a South Korea takeover and having a US ally on her border

For a diplomatic approach to stand any chance at all, it is crucial that, as a first step, both China and North Korea (through which ever back channels are available) know that we have heard and understood their concerns (even though we may not agree with them), and that we are taking them seriously. Then as we start to work towards joint solutions in due course, those concerns will guide and shape our proposals so that each party’s respective needs are met to the greatest extent possible, or at a minimum, not grossly violated. 
Implementing the Diplomatic Option
In his book, Deterrence or Defense, British military historian, Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart provides a few lines of valuable advice on diplomacy:

                “Keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent, and always assist him to save face. Put yourself in his shoes – so as to see things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like    the devil - nothing is so self-blinding”
In dealing with North Korea, adhering to the advice of not cornering them and assisting them to save face will be critical in our ability to engage them in productive dialogue. 

To achieve this, we need to apply the pressure of economic sanctions, but at the same time, send a message of principle that we are open to dialogue and exploration. While bringing the mettle of a military presence to the region, we need to simultaneously convey that we are prepared to discuss the merits too. We need to demonstrate that we are ready to listen, exchange, explore and hopefully work towards a détente and an eventual resolution, but failing that, we will fiercely protect and defend our interests.

This message however, cannot come directly from the United States, because both sides have dug into their positions so adamantly that for either to withdraw would be impossible without losing face. This will need to come from a third party neutral mediator, which both sides can respect. Any sensitive diplomatic efforts will have to go through back channels, very quietly and secretly under the radar of the press and media. China, who shares open channels of communication with both North Korea and The United States, would seem to be the obvious choice for this.

By sending a strong, silent message of détente in conjunction with economic sanctions and a military threat, and with China mediating, would be one way of following Liddell Hart’s salient advice of not cornering them and also assisting them to save face.

It would be most unfortunate if due to the current brinkmanship, a bad situation results in unimaginable destruction and devastation, which with good diplomacy might have been averted. 

In the final analysis, we cannot yet know what any agreement with North Korea might look like, and it might be very different to what anyone might even imagine, but we will never know unless we give diplomacy a very fair chance to succeed.
Lesson Learned
  • Always pursue and exhaust diplomatic efforts to resolve disputes before escalating.
  • Avoid dangerous threats and ultimatums.
  • Make sure to understand the situation fully from all sides.
  • Don’t base hasty decisions on misperceptions, misunderstandings, and misjudgments.
  • Never corner an opponent, and always assist him to save face.
  • If tensions are too great between the parties, seek a third party neutral to serve as mediator behind the scenes.
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