Back in August 2015, the decades-long conflict between South Korea and North Korea threatened to reach a breaking point. The causes of conflict between North and South go deep, but in this case, the South accused the North of planting landmines that seriously injured two South Korean border guards. South Korea retaliated with an old tactic designed to irritate its enemy: blaring propaganda into the North through loudspeakers lined up along the border. The North declared the provocation to be an “act of war” and threatened to take “strong military action,” including an attack on the speakers, if the South didn’t shut them off, the New York Times reports. Suddenly, the two nations’ actions had escalated into a dispute requiring a serious commitment on both sides to conflict management.
With their militaries exchanging artillery fire, the two governments agreed to emergency talks aimed at conflict management. Armed forces from the two nations were on standby as the South’s chief national security adviser and a leading military officer from the North met on the border to test their conflict resolution skills. Talks lasted three days, with North Korean officials reportedly taking frequent breaks to consult with their supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, on whether and how to move forward.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye said the loudspeakers would continue to blare until North Korea apologized for the land mine incident. The North Korean government refused, creating an impasse in the conflict management effort. A compromise ultimately emerged, however, when the two sides hit upon a novel solution: the North agreed to express “regrets,” not responsibility, for the explosions.
In return for the South’s concession (accepting less than a full apology), the North agreed to hold a new round of reunions of families separated by the Korean War, which ended up taking place in the fall of 2015. The embattled neighbors also said publicly that they were planning to meet in Seoul or Pyongyang for “dialogue and negotiations on various issues to improve relations.” South Korea shut off its loudspeakers but warned it might turn them on again if an unspecified “abnormal case” developed.
For the North’s young and inexperienced leader, Kim Jong-un, the negotiation provided an opportunity to demonstrate statesmanship, authority, and conflict resolution tactics. One North Korea expert, Kim Dong-yup, speculated to the Times that the North was only feigning distress about the loudspeakers, whose impact has never been proven, to “drag the South into talks.” As for South Korea’s President Park, the compromise that resulted from the conflict management effort may have been designed to quell criticism that her tough rhetoric escalated tensions with the North.
In negotiation and conflict management, actions and statements designed to convey toughness can backfire by launching an escalatory spiral that is difficult to contain. Carefully negotiating and crafting the language of public statements can help parties save face. Similarly, recognizing that your adversary’s provocations could be intended to inspire steps in conflict resolution might inspire you to soften your position and look for solutions using novel conflict management techniques.
What do you think about this example of conflict management? Leave a comment.
Adapted from the article “Trying to Come to Terms with an Adversary?” first published in the January 2016 issue of the Negotiation Briefings newsletter.
As a person living in South Korea, I was enormously relieved that the August standoff did not escalate further than it did. But to call the KPA’s placement of landmines in the DMZ an action
“intended to inspire steps in conflict resolution” is both highly improbable and disturbingly blasé about the deliberate maiming of two ROK soldiers. If this article is suggesting that the KPA or even Kim Jong Un intended to somehow bring about resolution of the 62-year-old conflict by killing (or trying to kill) ROK soldiers, it’s hard to imagine a more monstrous miscalculation. The act itself precipitated a crisis, which then necessitated a dialogue in the hope of gaining concessions. This is a standard DPRK practice historically, not a creative negotiation gambit. And for what it’s worth, the Military Demarcation Line is not a border.