‘Getting Past No’ with Kim Jong Un: The Psychology of Negotiation, and Kim’s ‘Art of the Deal’

(Photo: KCNA)

In the late 1960s, a delicate opening of diplomacy to China began under auspices similar to those seen today in the recent diplomatic initiatives by North Korea, South Korea and the United States. It involved reaching out to a nuclear-armed nation with whom the US had not had diplomatic relations for several decades, a nation whose rhetoric and threat perception bore similarity—until 2018—to the missives coming from North Korea’s official media and foreign ministry. And the nuclear threat from China in the 1960s —as per the threat from North Korea in 2017—was potent and very, very real, enough so that (in the late 1960s) the development of the US anti-ballistic missile (ABM) program was predicated upon being able to deny China the ability to inflict a first-strike upon the US.

At that time, China and its Great Helmsman—Mao Zedong—were not seen as rational negotiating partners, but rather as mad, irrational actors on the world stage. Images and media reports of China’s violent, chaotic Cultural Revolution did little to dispel such views. And so the diplomatic minuet began, and signals—many of them missed by the US—and diplomatic openings emerged. These involved interviews with westerners (Edgar Snow), sports competitions (an international ping-pong tournament held in Beijing), secretive diplomatic openings in Warsaw and Paris (involving the US Ambassador to Poland Walter Stoessel and US Defense Attaché to France General Vernon Walters, who met with China’s Ambassador to France Huang Chen), foreign interlocutors (Jean Sainteny, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yahya Khan, and Romania’s leader Nicolae Ceaucescu), hostage releases (CIA paramilitary officers John Downey and Richard Fecteau, who had been imprisoned since 1952, and were not released until 1972/1973), and a secret, preparatory trip (during 1971) to China by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, leading up to President Richard Nixon’s February 1972 summit with China’s Mao.

As North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump prepare for their historic summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018, informed observers could be faulted for missing the various historic analogies and their potent psychological symbolism. The historical context noted above of the opening to China in the late 1960s and early 1970s can reveal much to us, with its eerie parallels to today’s summit preparation processes and the recent diplomatic initiatives undertaken by North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong Un, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, and US President Donald Trump. Kim and Moon need no reminders of such history, and if their memories had faltered, China’s President Xi Jinping and his able diplomats could surely offer reminders of such precedents. China’s experience with the US can help observers understand that Kim Jong Un is borrowing from this historic playbook, as well as from more modern, classic strategies such as those taught at Harvard’s Negotiation Program by Professor William Ury and described in his book, Getting Past No. We have recently seen similar actions: North Korea’s attendance at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang; sensitive, delicate meetings with high-level North Korean, South Korean, Chinese and American officials; release of 3 American detainees; and public statements indicative of a new tone and new optimism on the Korean Peninsula.

In the late 1990s, Scott Snyder’s Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior portrayed North Korean leaders and diplomats as utilizing harsh, ‘scorched earth’ negotiating tactics in order to prevail and achieve their national security interests. It would be convenient to see Kim’s political behavior in the past several months as more of the same. But such thinking is—as linguists call it—akin to a diplomatic analogue of a cognate, or a ‘false friend.’ Rather, Kim’s recent political behavior is more of a classic negotiating strategy, where he has made all of the right moves since late 2017. But Kim has done even more. He has already—as articulated by John Delury—created powerful, novel symbols of both his nation’s and South Korea’s yearning for peace. The recent Moon-Kim summit in Panmunjom powerfully showed values dear to their cultures: respect, filial piety, harmony and order. They spoke in private, both appearing to listen ardently; they held hands, as they walked across the border of the DMZ; and they planted a tree (where in 1976, North Korean soldiers had hacked down trees). Cold War symbols of US negotiator Paul Nitze’s and Soviet Ambassador Yuli Kvitsinsky’s legendary ‘walk in the woods’ on the outskirts of Geneva, suddenly resonated with us once again. And Kim—after years of chilly relations—reached out to China’s Xi, showing political maturity beyond his years, and photos of their recent meetings in Beijing and Dalian (where they walked on the beach while having diplomatic discussions) highlighted this as well.

So now comes the hard part. Singapore’s late Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, were he still alive, would be hosting the crowning moment of his legendary career. I’d like to think that he, so prescient in his views of other leaders (he referred to China’s Xi Jinping as “in the Nelson Mandela’s class of persons [and] a person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings affect his judgment—he is impressive”) would perceive Kim Jong Un as an aspirational leader, who has highlighted his desire to see North Korea move beyond nuclear weapons towards economic development, much like Vietnam’s Doi Moi policy in the 1980s. But the Kim-Trump summit will have its future challenges. Kim has, like the Chinese in the 1970s, started with grand gestures and communiqués, but now comes the long, patient and difficult work of diplomacy. One might recall that it took seven years from the 1972 Nixon-Mao summit until the establishment of US-China diplomatic relations in 1979. In the case of Vietnam, an even longer period of time elapsed before full US-Vietnamese diplomatic relations were established in 1995.

Much has been written about Kim’s political psychology, and it seems worthy to remind students of diplomacy that—particularly in such vexing cases as North Korea—personal relationships at high levels truly matter. That Kim has gone out of his way to create positive, constructive relationships with Moon, Xi and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bodes well for his upcoming summit with President Trump, who has also written of how he values personal relationships with key world leaders. One might also recall that during the early 1970s, while the lengthy negotiations with China occurred, US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had hundreds of hours of individual meetings with China’s Premier Zhou En-lai. As in China and so in North Korea, context, trust, nuance, symbols, messaging and ‘face’ matter, greatly so. The tenor of the recent meeting in Pyongyang with Kim Jong Un involving Pompeo and CIA North Korea Mission Director Andrew Kim can serve as a helpful model as negotiations move forward.

During the past several months, CIA Director (and now Secretary of State) Pompeo has spoken of how the US intelligence community—correctly in my opinion—sees Kim as a ‘rational actor.’ But the corollary of such a statement goes beyond that, for to see Kim as such means that his negotiation style and psychology has also changed to that of a classic negotiator. His interlocutors such as Presidents Moon and Trump now have the challenge of figuring out how to get to yes, or at least get past no, reminding themselves of subtle historical contexts. And Kim Jong Un will have to shift from recent provocative nuclear tests to a doctrine of nuclear status, capability and opacity—India (1974-1998) and Israel (as described in the works of George Perkovich and Avner Cohen, respectively) offer precedents in this regard—in return for security guarantees.

Surely, Kim and his negotiators have carefully studied Trump’s The Art of the Deal, probably also William Ury’s works. So how will Kim apply those lessons learned in Singapore next month? Only time will tell. So far, he has made all the right diplomatic moves. Lee Kwan Yew would be proud. So would Paul Nitze and Soviet Ambassador Yuli Kvitsinsky. And he’d get an A in Professor Ury’s Harvard class, with the caveat that both his and President Trump’s BATNA—’best alternative to a negotiated agreement’—would be regressive, and would take the US, South Korea, and North Korea back to 2017 and a likely worsening of political and military tensions on the Korean Peninsula. President Trump can do likewise, but he would be advised to subtly shift from his better-known negotiating style as articulated in The Art of the Deal, to a more classical style as articulated by Professor Ury: moving from ‘getting past no’ to ‘getting to yes.’

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