Dealing with difficult people like dishonest negotiators can be a challenge. Negotiating opportunities sometimes come from challenging sources: a family member who has been unreliable in the past but promises to make a change; a business competitor that approaches you about a joint venture; a difficult boss with whom you would like to work out a better relationship.
How should you deal with potential negotiating partners who are dishonest negotiators, or whom you don’t entirely trust—or should you deal with them at all? The U.S. government faced this question in the hope of convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear-weapons program. The aftermath of an agreement between the two nations suggests precautions for those of us looking to make headway with our own rogue counterparts.
A Very Brief Negotiated Agreement
In light of President Trump’s recent visit to Singapore back in June of 2018, it is interesting to take a look back at past negotiations with North Korea. Beginning in 2011, the United States negotiated for many months with the erratic, secretive leadership of North Korea. The drawn-out talks began in the era of Kim Jong-il and, after his death, resumed under the new regime of his son Kim Jong-un, who was also proved to be one of the most dishonest negotiators.
On February 29, 2012 the countries announced that they had reached an agreement: North Korea promised to freeze its enriched-uranium weapons program and its long-range-missile activities in exchange for large amounts of desperately needed U.S. food aid.
It took only 17 days for North Korea to sabotage the deal: in March 2012, it announced plans to launch a satellite using a long-range missile in mid-April. The United States said the decision violated a U.N. Security Council resolution that bars North Korea from launching missiles or rockets. Moreover, U.S. negotiators had warned North Korea during their talks that a satellite launch would be a “deal breaker,” according to The New York Times.
According to some analysts, hard-liners in Pyongyang may have upended the February deal by insisting on a satellite launch to mark the centennial of the birth of the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung. A common North Korean negotiating tactic is to abuse loopholes in an agreement to gain leverage or even kill the deal, Choe Sang-Hun writes in The New York Times.
On March 26, 2012 President Obama joined other world leaders at the Global Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea. During a speech in Seoul, Obama warned North Korea that to “continue down the road you are on” would lead to “more of the same, more broken dreams, more isolation,” as reported by NPR’s Mike Shuster.
And in a meeting, Obama also urged Chinese president Hu Jintao to use his influence to convince Pyongyang leaders not to proceed with the satellite launch.
But on April 13 of the same year, North Korea launched its rocket, which exploded almost immediately in midair and landed in the Yellow Sea.
Dishonest Negotiators: Deal or No Deal?
Did the United States err in negotiating with North Korea, given the country’s well-known reputation for being unreliable and provocative?
Consider that after Kim Jong-il’s death in December of 2011, it became an open question whether his son Kim Jong-un would continue to steer North Korea on its course of isolation or go in a more cooperative direction.
Daniel Sneider of Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center told Shuster that the negotiations had been a “useful” means for the United States to test whether the new North Korean government was ready to shift its policy. By breaking the agreement so quickly, the country communicated that it was not.
How do you handle difficult people and dishonest negotiators?
Adapted from “When They Fail the Trust Test,” first published in the June 2012 issue of Negotiation.