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North and South Korea leaders meet again today. Have armchair pundits ever been so clueless?

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I’ve been opining over at the new 7DNews on the never dull saga of President Trump and the North Korea knot of issues.

My first one on 12 May about the dramas of decompression:

In July last year when the rhetoric between North Korea and Washington was getting alarmingly angry as Pyongyang tested new missiles, I made this suggestion:

Maybe the way to bring everyone together on this one is to use a very big What If? question, to get away from sterile bickering over Positions and drill down into real Interests and Needs.

What if:

  • Korea is legally reunited under one flag in a complicated one-country-two-systems sort of way that USA/China/Russia/Japan together guarantee
  • It accepts as part of the deal a phased withdrawal of US forces and denuclearisation/neutrality

Done. No-one is threatened. Everyone gets richer.

Perhaps something like this is what we are now seeing.

President Trump by profession and temperament loves deals and haggling. Perhaps he has offered (or opened the way to talking about offering) a deal featuring a controlled ‘decompression’ of the North Korean system that scales tensions right down on a verifiable basis but (crucially for Kim Jong-un and his inner loyalists) keeps Kim Jong-un in the leadership business.

Perhaps the grim Gaddafi example is a model for how not to normalise a dictatorship: lots of diplomatic glory and a new sense of opening the economy to greedy Western companies, but no real change in governance. After all, where is there a good model in the Middle East for a steady successful movement from dictatorship to sustained democracy, of the sort seen across central Europe after communism collapsed? The Arab Spring protests seemed to be hoping for something like that, but look at the dismal results.

In Asia it’s different. China, South Korea and Vietnam offer distinct sustained models for bringing in radical market reforms and a general opening of opportunities without crashing or punishing the ruling elites. Controlled and disciplined decompression.

Plus China, Japan, Russia and the USA all have reasons to put their diplomatic and economic weight behind a new deal for the Korean peninsula that reduces tensions and scales back military forces.

All this offers a far wider spectrum of creative tough-minded options than anything available to Gaddafi. Perhaps to the point of giving Kim Jong-un serious food for thought:

“What if that strange Trump has a point? What if instead of the world seeing me as a big problem, the world starts seeing me as part of a huge solution?”

Good question! Nobel Peace Prizes all round!

But then … things started to wobble. Were references at high levels in Washington to the ‘Libya example’ of disarmament giving Pyongyang good reason to back away? How if at all could the North Korea leadership trust President Trump? Thus:

It might seem paradoxical, but often progress is made because there is almost no trust between two countries. It’s because they and their leaders don’t trust each other that they agree to talk to pin down some specific items of agreement where both sides have an interest in something different happening.

In such a situation, the parties decide to trust the process rather than trust each other. Indeed, the whole point of the process is to manage the obvious lack of trust on an agreed, principled basis. Life has to go on.

Non-diplomats struggle to grasp this. They see diplomats spending days or weeks or months or years haggling over what look like trivial issues of ‘form’ (flags, nameplates, the shape and size of the negotiation table, the size of delegations, the punctuation in the final protocol and so on) rather than the real issues at stake.

But these protocol-type issues are in fact vital if all concerned are to feel that the process is honest and respectful: it’s a process they can trust, aiming at a result they can accept. Any such result involving disarmament typically contains provisions for all sides being sure (enough) that commitments made are in fact being implemented: that’s another way of using clever process to manage low levels of mutual trust.

Another way of dealing with lack of trust is studied ambiguity. Take this North Korea case. The Americans want North Korea’s ‘denuclearisation’, i.e. North Korea renouncing its nuclear weapons programmes and demolishing all the facilities that might advance them. The North Koreans by contrast won’t accept ‘unilateral nuclear abandonment’ and refuse to be ‘forced into a corner’.

This language gives both sides plenty of diplomatic and operational wiggle-room if they want it. Thus a strategic deal might involve a mutually verifiable step-by-step scaling back of all nuclear weapons and research in and around the Korean peninsula; the USA drawing down its conventional forces to an agreed timetable; and a phased normalisation of relations between North and South. Plus lots of foreign investment in North Korea. In other words, North Korea’s ‘denuclearisation’ is not an event but a process based on step-by-step success.

The point in all this is simple. After a long history of war and rivalry, it sometimes takes a long time (maybe generations) to build strategic trust between states and their peoples (see Serbs and Albanians; Greeks and Turks; French and Germans; Arabs and Israelis). The only way to trudge through those long years is to get used to doing positive things together. Small deals implemented together will create the mutual confidence to move on to rather bigger deals.

Relations between leaders can accelerate things. Yet that is not enough, or it may be shallow. Remember how back in 2001 President G W Bush described his first meeting with President Putin:

“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue … I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

880 weeks later relations between Washington and Moscow are in miserable shape.

Let’s stay optimistic and assume that the Singapore summit in June between President Trump and Kim Jong-un takes place. They too will look each other in the eye. Will they start to trust each other enough not to collapse any deal as and when things go wrong?

Scarcely had the e-ink dried on that one before the summit was called OFF in that impressive Trumpish letter:

 Is President Trump calling off the summit in this way showing strength or weakness?

“Weakness!” hoot the armchair pundits. “No, far worse than weakness – sheer incompetence! North Koreans are tough and tricky. It was obvious from the start that Trump had no idea what he’s doing!”

Not implausible. Although one wonders what China and Russia are up to behind the scenes in Pyongyang. Does a Trump Triumph in June suit them for their own wider reasons? Maybe not. If not, what might they do to make sure it doesn’t happen, except on terms they’re ready to accept?

There is nonetheless another way to look at it. Namely that the US/North Korea negotiation continues even though President Trump has called off the summit.

Here President Trump wisely has decided not to waste time and credibility amidst media frenzies preparing for a Summit that might not work but he has left the door wide open for another go as and when the ‘mood’ is right.

People often think that a ‘successful’ diplomatic negotiation proceeds steadily and ends in an agreement. But when (as in a case like this) the sides’ interests/needs are for now incompatible and things don’t ‘fit’, the negotiation doesn’t stop. It just moves from a formal exchange across a table into other measures (sanctions, pressure, inducements and so on).

Remember the USA peace talks with North Vietnam in the early 1970s? As the diplomatic meetings continued in Paris, the United States was bombing North Vietnam. That bombing was the negotiation. Would the USA do whatever it took to win? No. So in due course North Vietnam won.

See also the USA and Iran. By withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and dropping more than broad hints that the USA under new management might favour ‘regime change’ in Tehran, Washington opens a new phase of negotiation that brings into play Iran’s mounting domestic problems.

In other words, in diplomacy the actual negotiation is the underlying trial of strength or willpower or stamina. Face-to-face negotiation is just one way to express it. But for that format to work and edge things forward, the leaders concerned need to feel confident in each other’s basic commitment to trying to make the process proceed.

In this Trump letter to Kim Jong-un there is an implicit important message that the top North Korea leadership will ponder:

Look. This is serious business. I don’t plan to humiliate you. But please – don’t play games and threaten to humiliate me. I’m ready to sit down to talk. Let me know when you are too.

Now, as if by magic, the mood has changed again with discussions continuing after what looks like an impressively conciliatory reply from North Korea:

The U.S. side’s unilateral announcement of the cancellation of the summit makes us think over if we were truly right to have made efforts for it and to have opted for the new path.

But we remain unchanged in our goal and will to do everything we could for peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and humankind, and we, broad-minded and open all the time, have the willingness to offer the U.S. side time and opportunity.

The first meeting would not solve all, but solving even one at a time in a phased way would make the relations get better rather than making them get worse. The U.S. should ponder over it.

We would like to make known to the U.S. side once again that we have the intent to sit with the U.S. side to solve problem regardless of ways at any time.

Note that it is oddly difficult to be sure how far Western media reports of the North Korea response in any way reflect what North Korea has said officially, if indeed it has said anything at all. Lots of media outlets report the statement but none link to it so we can read it in full for ourselves. See eg CNN. Or the Independent.

Vox at least links to a Tweet by a WSJ journalist that has what looks like the text of a/the statement. But how are we mere mortals meant to take a view on the weight of any statement apparently emanating from N Korea? My own puny attempts to see the official N Korea news website KCNA have failed haha. So I make do with KCNA Watch, whoever they might be. This too looks like the latest statement, from the NK First Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs (ie not someone right at the top, but close enough?)

So it transpires that as of this morning things are looking up again, as President Trump has Tweeted today in his characteristic free-form grammar/punctuation style:

We are having very productive talks with North Korea about reinstating the Summit which, if it does happen, will likely remain in Singapore on the same date,  June 12th., and, if necessary, will be extended beyond that date.


Diplomacy is a process, not an event.

Only the top North Korean leadership themselves, with all their own jealousies and suspicions, know how far they are prepared to go to scale their nuclear weapon ambitions right back in a verifiable way in return for some sort of new trade and political rapprochement with the rest of the world.

That said, maybe even they are intrigued by the flattering prospect of meeting the American President with full pomp and glory. Might such a meeting help offer them a radically new enticing perspective on the way things work, and their own prospects for flourishing under a quite different set of rules?