Hello from the other side

The surprising chitchat across the DMZ

By — on / International Negotiation

What should you do when negotiations have ended in rancor, and you and your counterpart aren’t even talking to each other?

In July 2018, North Korean soldiers based at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea apparently decided to pick up the phone. When it rang in the U.S. base on the other side of the DMZ, the United Nations Command team—staffed primarily by U.S. military personnel— didn’t know where the sound was coming from, the Wall Street Journal reports. Eventually, someone picked up the receiver of an old pink touch- tone phone. To the soldiers’ shock, North Korea was on the line.

The two adversaries installed a phone hotline in 1976 to share official messages and lessen the odds of violent incidents on the DMZ. But North Korean soldiers stopped taking calls on the hotline in 2013, after the United Nations imposed sanctions on North Korea following a nuclear test. For five years, U.S. military officer Daniel McShane placed four unanswered calls every weekday to his counterparts 125 feet away. For a while, when he needed to get a message through, he would step up to the border and speak through a megaphone.

Not long after U.S. president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met last year in person for the first time, the pink phone began to ring again.

These days, calls take place every morning and afternoon. The conversations are mundane and often predictable: The parties ask each other if they have any messages; both answer no. But McShane and his eight North Korean counterparts have developed a rapport while discussing their passions and preferences, from the Los Angeles Dodgers to Doritos to whiskey. McShane speaks Korean, and the North Koreans speak English, so language hasn’t been a barrier.

It’s no presidential summit, but “If they’re talking, they’re not shooting,” McShane told the Journal.

If you think your odds of mending a broken relationship with a negotiating counterpart—or anyone else—are hopeless, maybe you’ll be inspired by the American and North Korean soldiers talking across the DMZ twice a day about baseball and snacks.

After all, sometimes you just have to pick up the phone.

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