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.

Don't be afraid to push back, but don't be afraid not to either: There will be countless moments when the North Koreans attack the United States to prove that they are being tough. But it is best to resist the natural urge to strike back. Otherwise your talks could easily bog down in useless exchanges. Once during a visit to a North Korean nuclear facility, the chief engineer harangued me about American hostility for what seemed like an eternity. I decided to move on after he was done and, sure enough, we then got down to business. On the other hand, there are times when counterattacking is essential, especially when North Koreans pull back from what you thought was a done deal, as they often do.

And there are rare but perfect moments when you can let it rip. A classic case in point: After listening to a dull North Korean bureaucrat ramble on about America's hostile policy during a coffee break, a State Department colleague pointed out to him that if the U.S. had been that hostile, the North Korean literally wouldn't have been there (physically). Point made; the initial shock gave way to another diatribe.

Negotiations often don't happen at the negotiating table: Get ready to spend days at the table listening to North Korean diatribes, as well as rants justifying their positions and others attacking yours. You can't avoid it. One U.S. negotiator new to the job once decided to rush matters, slammed his papers on the table and walked out to show frustration. His delegation loved the theater, but he later realized that the North Koreans took it as a sign of weakness.

Understand that they have to answer to their bosses back home who are reading detailed reports on everything said at the table. And since this is North Korea we are talking about, the pressures must be enormous. But do not despair; in the meantime there are other avenues of communication. Coffee breaks, lunches, dinners, breakfasts, and private chats are perfect places to do business, particularly since it appears these discussions are not reported to Pyongyang in detail. That business can include anything from choreographing formal negotiating sessions -- for example warning them that your government has told you to say something nasty and they shouldn't overreact -- to exploring compromises and finding ways to move forward. Informal contacts then feed back into talks at the negotiating table. However, at the end of the day, even if you succeed, one U.S. negotiator compares the experience to being dragged across a "field of broken glass."

Bring along a scout: While North Koreans can be direct, they operate on a different verbal wavelength -- obscure to Americans -- that is firmly grounded in past pronouncements. (I know one scout whose State Department office was cluttered with volumes of North Korean statements stretching back for decades.) For those new to the experience, it must feel like Lewis and Clark crossing the continental United States in the early 1800s. You know which direction you want to head in but aren't quite sure how to get to your destination. An experienced scout can read signs on the trail (analyze what the North Koreans are saying) and put you on the right path.

For example, in 1999 former Secretary of Defense William Perry visited Pyongyang as the envoy of President Clinton at a difficult moment. Most of his delegation thought the trip was a bust. But back in Washington, an experienced State Department "scout" read the tea leaves -- a statement by North Korea's official news agency -- and pronounced the trip a success. Sure enough, the visit paved the way for the number-two leader in the North to visit Washington and meet President Clinton. It is unclear whether there are any scouts left today, though, since the U.S. has not been talking much to the North.

Get everything written down in black and white : Common sense of course, but the art of diplomacy is often finding solutions to difficult problems, and that sometimes leads to papering over disagreements or, even worse, to verbal hand shakes. That's a big risk if you are talking to the North Koreans. Don't leave any loopholes that can be exploited and don't depend on verbal contracts, which as the famous Hollywood film studio mogul and part-time North Korea watcher Louis Mayer once sagely observed "aren't worth the paper they are written on." While I was not there, I suspect that was the problem with the 2011 U.S.-North Korean agreement (often referred to as the "Leap Day Agreement"), which would have stopped the North's nuclear and missile tests but quickly collapsed. Before the ink was dry, former diplomats predicted it wouldn't work because of imprecise language. Sure enough, the North Koreans interpreted the language as allowing tests of space-launch vehicles while the U.S. said it didn't allow missile or space-launch tests -- an important point, since both can be used to develop long-range missiles. When the agreement collapsed, U.S. diplomats insisted that they had made their position clear to the North Koreans. That may have been true, but remember the sage advice of Mayer.

While mastering these skills will be necessary for anyone who wants to negotiate with Pyongyang, they will by no means be sufficient. Securing North Korean restraint in building weapons of mass destruction in return for better relations will be a tall order, made even more difficult by domestic political skepticism in the United States and South Korea. However, history has shown us that ignoring this problem only means it will get worse, not better.

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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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