5 Wrong Assumptions About Negotiating with North Korea

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The following article appeared on page B-7 of the San Francisco Chronicle on July 24, 2006.

How to continue to negotiate with leaders in Pyongyang became an immediately urgent question on July 4 when North Korea test-fired seven missiles over the Sea of Japan. Pyongyang’s provocation makes all players involved in this high-stakes game reluctant to go back to negotiations. However, resorting to sanctions and prolonging the stalemate of the six-party talks could eliminate the possibility of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program.

To engage in serious negotiations with North Korea at this critical stage, Washington needs to address a few wrong assumptions about negotiating with North Korea.

Wrong assumption 1: North Korea is a weak player in negotiations with the United States. Power in negotiations is not necessarily associated with a country’s economic or military strength or international image. The party who is less dependent on others or who has better alternatives tends to be more aggressive and risk-prone in pursuing its objectives. Already being isolated and deprived, North Korea has little to lose by pursuing brinkmanship. Therefore, Washington should treat Pyongyang as an equally powerful player, deal with it with great caution and strengthen alliances with China, South Korea, Japan and Russia to undercut Pyongyang’s continuation of its nuclear-weapons program.

Wrong assumption 2: Time is on Washington’s side. In negotiations, the party who has less time pressure always enjoys the upper hand in forcing its counterpart to make concessions. It appears to Washington that regime collapse in Pyongyang is the ultimate solution of the nuclear crisis, and time will bring that result. Time, however, is not in Washington’s favor. With continued economic aid from China and South Korea, North Korea can afford to hold onto a position of “no talks” while accumulating further power to change the rules of that game. Washington needs to speed up meaningful negotiations.

Wrong assumption 3: Six-party talks should be an “all-purpose” forum to discuss all relations. Six-party talks provide an ideal framework for maintaining long-term regional security, but work poorly as a crisis-management mechanism. Multilateral negotiations, by nature, are inefficient and less effective in establishing momentum and achieving consensus. The diversified interests and priorities of the six nations splinter the focus, dilute the consensus-building process, and slow arrival at a solution. Six parties speaking in five languages already make communications difficult, let alone enhancing mutual understanding, bridging differences, building trust and reaching consensus. There must be a small-scale negotiation running parallel within the six-party context — direct engagement between Washington and Pyongyang, either secretly or publicly. Only these two can strike substantial deals and seek a quick fix to problems.

Wrong assumption 4: Negotiating issue by issue is most effective. The paramount concern for Washington is Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. Other issues, such as a peace treaty, security assurance and energy assistance are not really on Washington’s negotiation list other than to coerce Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program. However, in the context of Eastern culture, people believe various issues are closely interconnected and must be traded in an overall bargaining. Therefore, Washington’s manner is regarded as inflexible, arrogant, insincere and untrustworthy, and not conducive to building a relationship that is crucial to strike and enforce an agreement. Focusing solely on a specific issue without considering its implications on other issues will limit a negotiator’s creativeness and long-term vision.

Wrong assumption 5: China should be at the forefront of negotiations. Calling for China to pressure North Korea amid the missile incident ignored China’s status as an impartial mediator to facilitate talks, which is substantively different from the role of a negotiator that could put bargaining chips on the table. At this stage, it’s not realistic to expect China to expand its clout by changing its policy toward North Korea. Though Pyongyang’s missile threat may have worsened China’s security dilemma, the major problem of resuming talks remains Washington’s. Only by facing its own problem squarely and seeking more independent ways of negotiation can Washington become mature in denuclearization diplomacy.

President John F. Kennedy said, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” The U.S. leadership has the opportunity to end North Korea’s nuclear programs peacefully with wisdom and courage.

Jason Qian is a fellow at the Harvard Negotiation Project of Harvard Law School of Harvard Law School. Anne Wu is a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

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