6 Dos and Don'ts for Negotiating With North Korea

Don't treat them like crazy robots. Do send in a scout -- and some New Yorkers.
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at a ceremony marking the 81st anniversary of the founding of the Korean People's Army at the plaza of the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang on April 25, 2013. (Reuters)

The crisis on the Korean peninsula appears to have died down, but we shouldn't be fooled just because it's no longer front-page news. Serious problems remain that could flare up at a moment's notice plunging the United States and the two Koreas back into a tense confrontation. Given that danger, now may be the right time to begin dialogue with the North Koreans to see whether there is a peaceful path forward. Recognizing the important role diplomacy may play in defusing this problem, Secretary of State John Kerry raised this possibility with North Korea at the end of his recent trip to Asia.

Talking to the North Koreans can serve our national interests -- a view that has been held by every American administration since President Ronald Reagan first initiated talks with Pyongyang in 1988.

However, Kerry certainly has his work cut out for him; the prevailing wisdom is that it is a waste of time talking to the North Koreans. Leaving aside the myths that they are crazy (which they are not) and that they cheat (which they sometimes do but not always), there is also a constant mantra recited by the White House as well as U.S. politicians, pundits, and media. It goes like this: we need to break the vicious cycle of North Korean threats; we pay them off, get nothing in return, and they just threaten us again. Anyone familiar with the past 20 years of U.S.-North Korean relations knows this is not true. Indeed, my experience at the U.S. State Department from 1993 until 2002 tells me that talking to the North Koreans can serve our national interests. And that view has been held by every American administration since President Ronald Reagan first initiated talks with Pyongyang in 1988.

The poster child for this rant is the landmark deal reached between the United States and North Korea in October 1994 after the two almost went to war, called "the Agreed Framework." Greeted with howls of disapproval by conservatives such as Senator John McCain, who called the framework "appeasement" and my boss -- Ambassador Robert Gallucci -- who negotiated it "an unmitigated disaster," the agreement in fact stopped a mushrooming multi-billion dollar nuclear weapons program in its tracks without giving the North Koreans much in return. At the time, secret American intelligence estimates projected that the North could build up to 100 nuclear weapons by the year 2000. By the time the arrangement collapsed in 2002, the North only had enough nuclear material for a handful of weapons. In return, it had received a few hundred million dollars worth of fuel oil plus unfinished nuclear power reactors in the form of two concrete-filled holes in the ground.

Even if the U.S. can get over these historical hang-ups, talking to North Koreans isn't going to be easy. There is the added complication of actually having to negotiate with them. We sometimes fantasized at the State Department about a World Series of negotiations between Israel and North Korea, since both countries had reputations as being tough adversaries. We also convinced ourselves it was best to have New Yorkers talk to the North Koreans since neither would let anyone push them around. All of this may have an element of truth, but talking to North Koreans is, in some ways, not much different from other difficult negotiations, whether in business, labor or trade or with other countries. A friend involved in tough trade negotiations with Japan during the 1970s recently told me those talks and dialogue with Pyongyang had much in common.

If the Obama administration does decide to get back into the diplomatic game, Secretary Kerry should keep in mind six helpful "do's and don'ts" learned over decades of negotiating with the North.

Don't treat them like crazy robots : Attacks on the North's political system or its ideology will get you nowhere and will just result in interminable arguments. As an American colleague once observed, if there is anything the North Koreans know how to deal with, it's a frontal assault. And of course, you will meet your share of graying communist apparatchiks who will have nothing much to say except robotic responses. But you will also meet pragmatic, businesslike, and smart professionals. A few years ago, I was having dinner with a North Korean woman from the foreign ministry who I had known a long time and she casually asked me whether I had read Hillary Clinton's book, It Takes a Village. (I had not, but she clearly had and wanted to talk about it.) On other occasions, the North Koreans have been happy to swap details about their families and to even ask you to bring them DVDs of movies or medicines that are not available in their country.

Personal relationships matter : Hard to believe, but they can help get over difficult moments or find solutions to tough problems. I and ten other Americans were once held hostage for hours in a conference room surrounded by bayonet-armed troops on a North Korean military base near the Chinese border. We were there to inspect the suspected secret nuclear facility. The problem was one of the Americans recorded information in his notebook, violating the inspection's rules. Some of our team thought they were not going home. But one reason we were able to resolve the problem was the government escorts from Pyongyang were old colleagues I had known for years. Not only did they lie to their own military, telling them that the other team members didn't record prohibited information (they had). They also quickly accepted my suggestion to lock the offending notebook in a chest stored at the site. Problem solved, although years later the North Koreans were still asking to be paid a storage fee.

Presented by

Joel S. Wit and Jenny Town

Joel S. Wit is a visiting fellow with the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and founder of its North Korea website, 38North.org. Jenny Town is a research associate at the Institute and the editor of its website.

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