Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Negotiating with North Korea

Otto Warmbier’s untimely and unfortunate death drew everyone’s attention back to North Korea. By showing the world the brutal depravity the regime practices against innocents, Warmbier’s death has made the threat of war against the nation more credible, because more acceptable to American public opinion.

Yesterday, before Warmbier’s death was announced, George Friedman analyzed the state of the negotiations between America and North Korea. Evidently, China is a major player in the process and leaders of that nation will be meeting with high level American officials in Washington tomorrow. As the Wall Street Journal reports, China wants to talk trade. The United States wants to talk North Korea.

Friedman opens his analysis:

There are signs that the North Korean crisis is easing. These signs are, in my opinion, part of the negotiating process that has been underway in recent weeks. This process has two purposes. The first is to reach a settlement. If one is not reached, the second purpose is to allow the United States to justify an attack by being able to demonstrate that it has left no stone unturned in a search for an alternative to war. And in fact, the United States doesn’t want war. A war with North Korea, like all wars, would be risky. It would put the South Korean city of Seoul in danger of severe casualties if North Korea retaliated with its artillery, and it would open the door to significant American casualties as well.

A negotiation such as this is a complex process in which each side must convince the other that it is prepared for war but interested in a settlement, while not appearing too eager for one. Each side will make threatening gestures and conciliatory gestures at different points in the talks. Just like in a negotiation to buy a home, both sides must be genuinely prepared to walk away from the deal, creating the illusion that making a deal is not essential.

By these terms, we have not yet persuaded the North Koreans that we are willing to use military force. Everyone knows that the potential consequences for South Korea would be extremely dire, and we do not, apparently, have a way to forestall them. Alternately, the pain that China could inflict by an economic boycott might constitute a sufficient threat.

American officials recognize that China’s ban on importing North Korean coal has had an effect, but we now want China to do more.

Friedman sees the negotiation in terms of manipulating emotions, especially the emotions of fear and greed. In his words:

A negotiation is about taking advantage and control of the other side’s fear and greed. Indeed, there are times when a show of weakness is the key to getting the other side to walk into a trap. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that you are not merely managing the other side’s perception of reality; you must also be ruthlessly controlling your own behavior to project the image and message you want to project.

Certainly, this presents an interesting view of negotiation. I would only add that a good negotiation is a trade-off. You give something and, in exchange, you gain something. If either party senses that it has been manipulated, that it has been taken advantage of by devious means, the purpose of the negotiation will have been undermined.

Second, as I have occasionally noted, in a good negotiation both parties must feel that they have saved face. In the current situation, if North Korea seems to be reacting to pressure, either from America or China, its leaders will lose face and thus find it very much more difficult to govern their nation. Authoritarian rulers need to have face, lest their rule seem illegitimate.

One might say that the recent round of taunts from North Korea, especially its missile tests, are designed to assert its control of the situation and to assure its people that it is not being pushed around or manipulated by any great power. If that nation cannot maintain its dignity and self-respect it will not be able to negotiate anything.

Friedman believes that you cannot negotiate effectively if you do not know the outcome you want. I would suggest that even if you begin a negotiation knowing the price you want to pay or receive, you will probably not get what you want. In most cases the desired outcome is a deal. In the current situation a deal would bring North Korea into the real world of diplomacy. They would exchange their nuclear weapons for legitimacy.

More importantly, America wants to reduce or eliminate the threat that North Korean nuclear weapons pose. One suspects that there are several different ways to achieve this end. At the least, we should pay attention to the way the negotiation unfolds, because we will all, thanks to Barack Obama, be facing the same problem with Iran in the coming years. One notes, yet again, that we are in this bind with North Korea thanks to Bill Clinton's failed diplomacy!

But, Friedman continues, negotiation does not merely involve two leaders. The negotiators must also have the support of their nations. Since they are not in it alone they must manage expectations on the home front.

He writes:

All of this becomes enormously complicated in negotiations between nations because the mood of the nation must also be managed. Particularly with democracies, negotiations can be frustrated by political eruptions that can be misread as weakness in your position. This leads not only to lack of confidence during the negotiations, which is deadly, but in democracies it leads to negotiators losing control over their positions.

American diplomatic negotiators can best be seen as brokers, caught between the American people and the adversary nation-state. There are two strategies for managing this problem. The first is to conduct negotiations in secret, which comes with a number of problems. If the secret leaks, it could cause a public uproar. The adversary will know that you are afraid of the public reaction and will either use that as leverage or shy away from making a deal, concerned that you can’t actually deliver. And if a deal is reached and then announced, the public will realize that negotiations were taking place in secret and its response will be, at best, unpredictable. You can try to keep the deal a secret, but on a significant issue, this can blow up in the negotiator’s face.

The second and better strategy is to make the issue appear less critical than it actually is. If the public can be persuaded to maintain a level of indifference despite the seriousness of the subject, the negotiations have a much higher chance of success. The adversary can’t manipulate public opinion and use the potential for public anger against you because the public is not engaged. The adversary, therefore, is forced to deal with the negotiators, who are free to conduct the talks with confidence.

By political eruptions, Friedman is suggesting that a negotiator must be seen as having the full confidence of his nation. If the nation is embroiled in political conflict or if the negotiator’s position seems tenuous, he will have more difficulty persuading his adversary that he can deliver what he is promising.

Friedman suggests that the best way to solve the issue is for the negotiators to make it appear that the issue is less grave than it appears. He will downplay the importance of the negotiation in order to lull the general public into complacency, thus giving him a freer hand to conduct his business.

What is going to happen? Friedman thinks that the crisis is insoluble. Mark Bowden, in the Atlantic, wargames the different possible strategies and concludes that the best we can do is to live with a nuclearized North Korea. Military action would be too costly. Negotiation will not yield a positive outcome.

In Friedman’s words:

Secretary of Defense James Mattis has signaled both that war would be catastrophic and that the U.S. will not accept North Korea’s acquisition of deliverable nuclear weapons that can reach the United States. And it will not wait for North Korea to acquire them in order to strike. Nothing in the negotiations seems to have solved the problem, and without capitulation on the core issue by one side or the other, it appears insoluble.

Friedman does not believe that we can live with a nuclear North Korea. He concludes his essay by suggesting that conflict is on the horizon…

Therefore, we still believe that North Korea and the U.S. are on the road to military conflict in the near future. War became a possibility after mid-June. The negotiations will continue, since there is little to lose. But U.S. forces can’t remain on alert in perpetuity, and the longer the U.S. waits, the greater the possibility of an intelligence miscalculation that allows North Korea to acquire the capability to strike the United States. Negotiation shapes the perceptions of all sides, but perception is not reality, and successful politicians understand that well. The reality continues to point toward action, and the action continues to look bloody.

One suspects that only China can avert catastrophe now. 

[Addendum: for an extended analysis of the chances that China might pressure North Korea, see this article by Will Edwards.]


trigger warning said...

"Certainly, this presents an interesting view of negotiation."

You are the Master of Understatement and Restraint today, SS.

Vis-a-vis the Norks, maybe we can do a Clintonian "end to the threat of nuclear proliferation" and build them a nuclear reactor.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: One suspects that only China can avert catastrophe now.

That's my conclusion. North Korea is China's problem child.

art.the.nerd said...

> One suspects that only China can avert catastrophe now.

Is this a polite way of saying "We're fucked"?

Ed in Kanata said...

I am sure the North Koreans are conscious of Libya who gave up their nuclear program and then got invaded and their leader killed. Also they will remember the U.S. Air Force bombing them into the stone age in the early 1950's. It will be a tough negotiation.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

There is only one way to negotiate with the Great Successor and the rest of the North Koreans: POWER. Same with the Iranians... I hope they're next.

Sam L. said...

I think we (the US) need to convince China is is in their best interest to cramp the Norks' style. If we have to do it ourselves, it could be hard on China.

Anonymous said...

NK never had a "rational" ruler. It has ruthless God-Kings. People were executed for not crying sufficiently after Kim 2's demise.

But cunning leadership.

A 3d world (mostly criminal) economy, small malnourished population, with brilliant physicists and mind-bending diplomats.

We're still in "Peace Negotiations" at Panmunjom!

NK shouldn't be able to tie the world in knots. But it does.

Asia is terrified. Rightly. The US in danger. I have no solution. Nobody does. -- Rich Lara