Peace and Conflict Resolution with Difficult Partners

Peace and conflict resolution can be difficult to achieve when the other side fears losing power—as the Trump administration is finding out regarding North Korea.

By — on / International Negotiation

peace and conflict resolution

When peace and conflict resolution are your goals, what should you do when your would-be counterpart doesn’t want to come to the negotiating table? U.S. president Donald Trump faces this question as he tries to determine the right path to take with North Korea.

Tensions have ratcheted up lately as concerns mount that North Korea could soon be capable of launching a nuclear strike on the United States. The state of U.S.-North Korea relations suggest diplomatic negotiation techniques for those dealing with reluctant counterparts in international negotiation and other realms to consider.

Pressure or an Outstretched Hand?

Since taking office, Trump has sought to “apply maximum pressure” on North Korea through sanctions, the threat of a military attack, and continued digital sabotage of its missile program as a precursor to negotiation, reports David E. Sanger of the New York Times. The approach is drawn from Trump’s experience as a real-estate developer: “Inflict maximum pain first, then see if the other guy wants to talk,” according to the Times.

U.S. secretary of state Rex W. Tillerson described the strategy to State Department officials as “a pressure campaign that has a knob on it. I’d say we’re at about dial setting 5 or 6 right now,” according to the Times.

By contrast, South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, favors a “Sunshine Policy” that involves offering “an outstretched hand to the North Koreans” by offering the hope of economic integration, the Times reports.

Both strategies come with risks. Trump is in danger of further alienating an unpredictable nation, perhaps even to the point of war. Meanwhile, Moon’s tactic could be ineffective at inspiring peace and conflict resolution, as it gives the North no clear incentive to come to the bargaining table.

Carrots and Sticks

In an article for Politico, former U.S. State Department official Peter Harrell writes that economic sanctions could pressure North Korea into beginning to disarm. Based on his experiences constructing U.S. sanctions on Iran from 2012-2014, Harrell concludes that coordinated sanctions among U.S. allies prompted Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program. According to Harrell, “vast parts of the North Korean economy” are “untouched” by international sanctions. If that were to change, Pyongyang could be pressured to come to the negotiating table.

But, writing for the Times, Max Fisher argues that sanctions may fail to pressure North Korean leaders to negotiate. Even during a devastating famine during the 1990s that killed up to 10% of their population, North Korean leaders refused to open up to the outside world or loosen their grip on the nation, he notes.

Rather than responding to pressure tactics, North Korea may instead be hoping to induce the United States and its allies to agree to significant concessions, such as acknowledgement of its government’s legitimacy and a reduction or withdrawal of American military from South Korea, in exchange for a draw-down of its nuclear program.

A Clear Vulnerability

In an article in the Washington Post, Eric X. Li argues that historical negotiations with North Korea during the Clinton and Bush administrations came “tantalizingly close” to convincing Pyongyang to disarm. Talks failed in large part because North Korean leaders believed the United States was determined to overthrow the regime once the nuclear threat was removed.

“North Korea has come to believe that nuclear weapons are its only protection,” according to Li. Only by removing the goal of regime change from denuclearization does the West stand a chance of reducing the North Korean nuclear threat, he argues. North Korea would demand assurances that it would not be attacked if it abandoned its nuclear program.

The current White House appears to be newly receptive to such a negotiation agenda, Li reports. “We do not seek regime change” or “an accelerated reunification of the peninsula,” Tillerson told National Public Radio. “We seek a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.”

When pursuing peace and conflict resolution, it’s imperative that we seek to determine the deeper fears underlying a counterpart’s aggressive gestures and hardline stances, and then find ways to address them. By doing so, we may discover a path to a mutually satisfactory agreement.

In the case of the Trump administration’s approach to reducing the security threat posed by North Korea, that could mean continuing to put pressure on the U.S. adversary through economic sanctions—but with a focus on negotiating demilitarization and not regime change.

What peace and conflict resolution strategies have you used effectively with difficult partners?

The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School
501 Pound Hall
1563 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
tel 1-800-391-8629
tel (if calling from outside the U.S.) +1-301-528-2676
fax 617-495-7818