Long-awaited talks between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un kicked off officially with a summit in Singapore on June 11. But top former negotiators and ambassadors with experience in North Korea remain apprehensive about that negotiations’ likely success.
The reason why? North Korea might as well be on a totally different planet. Here are the most unique attributes that will likely affect Trump’s ability to negotiate effectively, with one scary projected result (page 11).
1. North Koreans consider their dictators gods
- Problem: Because North Koreans believe their supreme leader’s a deity, they don’t take challenging him well.
William Perry, the former secretary of defense, told Politico the country’s attitude toward the dictator will affect the talks. Unlike most countries, North Korea really holds their supreme leader in the highest possible regard.
“The weirdest is they sincerely believe that the Kim family are gods,” Perry added. “There is a reverence for their leaders that is hard to understand. It hangs over everything.” Trump must take that into account, as well.
Next: North Korea’s society also provides a barrier.
2. Negotiators have to confront the country’s deprivation
- Problem: Some common Western metaphors and techniques don’t work in a country that’s completely shut off from the rest of the world.
When diplomat Christopher Hill appealed to the North Koreans to build mutual trust, he used the phrase “early harvest items.” While he meant it as communicating good-faith for later, the starving people took it literally.
“Early harvest means you are so g***d***d starving, you are basically eating the rice before it’s popped,” he recounted, of the exchange. Because of the astounding deprivation in the country, metaphors like that just don’t work. Trump also must realize those extreme differences.
Next: Trump’s business acumen also will likely do him no good.
3. Trump will not do the actual negotiating
- Problem: The strictly regimented North Korean government means negotiators come in with a plan they won’t break, no matter what.
Because of the extreme bureaucracy at work in North Korea, the summit just sets the stage. “The real work is going to be the poor guys who have to negotiate after the summit,” said Gary Samore, who helped negotiate the U.S.-Korea Agreed Framework in 1994.
“Their negotiators have no leeway,” added former security council member Michael Green. “They come in with talking points and they are completely inflexible … and if you surprise them with a much more flexible position, they stick to the pre-programmed talking points, accusing you of being hard-line and having a hostile policy.”
Next: This following attribute also tips the scales.
4. We know very little about North Korea’s actual government
- Problem: A culture of extreme secrecy means North Korea knows far more than we do — and knowledge is power.
“These guys are going to have done their homework,” Siegfried Hecker, the former head of Los Alamos National Laboratory, told Politico. “They are extremely knowledgeable on how the United States works — our political systems and on the nuclear front.”
By contrast, North Korea’s closed society actually gives the U.S. a disadvantage, because only they know the true ins and outs of their system. Trump should tread carefully, and understand how imbalanced the system stands.
Next: Our government’s high turnover also hurts negotiations.
5. North Korea’s officials remain in power far longer than ours
- Problem: Many North Korean officials come from government legacy families, and therefore have a much longer history than in high-turnover Trump government.
“People like Ri Yong-ho, the current minister of foreign affairs,” Hecker explained, “was one of the architects on the Korean side of the Agreed Framework.” In other words, North Korea’s officials know all about our long, mostly failed diplomatic history with the country.
Trump only has a year and a half of the presidency under his belt. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also has only spent a little over a month on the job. By contrast, some North Korean officials have more than 20 years of service. And in North Korea, that matters.
Next: They also have this shocking attitude toward U.S. officials.
6. North Korea’s leaders feel like they have the upper hand
- Problem: Because North Koreans know so much more about U.S. government, they also feel superior.
If Trump thinks he can out-bravado Kim, he has another thing coming. Hecker told Politico that Kim Kye Gwan, a vice minister, issued a statement citing his “repugnance” toward national security adviser John Bolton, as far back as 2002. “They have a sense of history and continuity,” he added.
Choe Son Hui once called Vice President Mike Pence a “political dummy.” Ambassador Chris Hill worked with her as an interpreter for Kim Kye Gwan and said her elevated status today gives her new bravado.
Next: Reality also doesn’t have quite the same hold there.
7. They don’t live by the same rules we do
- Problem: North Korea will often categorically ignore their human rights abuses, or refuse to discuss them so they can’t be used as bargaining chips.
Ambassadors to North Korea have learned they can’t try to change their system, because the officials will just feign ignorance. When Green tried to discuss North Korea’s record of jailing and killing political dissidents and running forced labor camps, they totally twisted it.
It “was completely futile,” he said. “Their response was, ‘But you don’t understand. Everyone is very happy.’ What do you say? Where do you even begin?” That kind of gaslighting subsequently makes negotiations difficult.
Next: Negotiating with the following tactic also won’t work.
8. North Korea’s negotiators stick to their guns
- Problem: Little leeway for each individual means negotiations are much more drawn out in North Korea than anywhere else.
In typical negotiations, both sides have some wiggle room at the table. Not in North Korea, however. “Usually, when you are in these kinds of negotiations with anybody — even the Chinese — there is a certain amount of leeway or agility, but they didn’t have it,” Green told Politico.
For that reason, negotiations can also move more slowly in North Korea than elsewhere. “They usually have to reconvene and then, the next day, take their positions,” the adviser added.
Next: Outright lies might also come up during talks.
9. The supreme leader will sometimes outright lie
- Problem: Kim has already proven he does not stay true to his word, which makes trusting his statements difficult.
Trump might actually do OK in this situation, since he also maintains a loose relationship with the truth, at times. But North Koreans often outright lie to negotiators. Kim will likely lie about the extent of the country’s nuclear programs, for example.
Green encountered a similar experience, in the past. “We knew quite conclusively that they were cheating by secretly developing uranium enrichment,” he recalled. “We confronted them … They denied it and accused us of trying to pull their pants down in front of the world.” Later, they acknowledged the program did, in fact, exist.
Next: The president might want to develop the following virtue, fast.
10. Negotiating often moves slowly in North Korea
- Problem: Moving too quickly or proposing measures Kim sees as too extreme won’t work in this case.
All of the veteran negotiators said the president must find some patience, because Kim likely won’t give up without a lot of back-and-forth. Hecker advised a program he calls “’You halt, roll back, and then eventually eliminate.”
That approach would quickly halt nuclear and missile testing, slowly dismantle the country’s nuclear facilities and bomb-making capacity, and eventually allow inspections to protect against blatant cheating. All of that will likely take years, the sort of longevity with which Trump has little experience.
Next: For that reason, some trepidation over the following does exist.
11. Negotiators have little faith in the president’s patience
- Problem: Trump’s usual bombast won’t get him far with Kim, as their past interactions have already shown.
Politico reports that the former negotiators also have little faith in the president’s capabilities to employ the sort of sensitivity Kim requires. “This is going to be a very tough negotiation. I don’t think they will give us very much,” Samore said. “We are past the point where elimination is a viable option. Trump is going into this negotiation with such an unrealistic view.”
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