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."