The ‘buzz saw’ experience of negotiating with North Korea
Those who have dealt with the mercurial and often maddening regime offer up tips. But some things are impossible to prepare for.
This story is being published by the South China Morning Post as part of a content partnership with POLITICO. It was reported by Bryan Bender and originally appeared on politico.com on June 4, 2018.
Expect lies. Do your homework – because they will have. Choose your words very carefully. And have Job-like patience. Oh, and remember that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un considers himself a supreme being.
These are some of the tips offered by half a dozen of the select American diplomats who have actually sat face-to-face with North Korea’s mercurial and often maddening regime. They provide some guidance to President Donald Trump and his advisers as they prepare for a June 12 summit with Kim in Singapore aimed at convincing him to surrender his nuclear arsenal.
But some things are impossible to prepare for.
“There is a weirdness,” said William Perry, the former secretary of defence who travelled to Pyongyang three times to try to make progress on nuclear disarmament in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Perry recalled a vivid example of just how alien his counterparts were: To get him in the room, the communist government once enlisted hundreds of forced labourers to shovel snow along 60 miles of highway so he could be driven across the demilitarised zone from South Korea.
“The weirdest is they sincerely believe that the Kim family are gods,” Perry added. “There is a reverence for their leaders that is hard to understand. It hangs over everything.”
Dealing with the North Koreans also involved constant reminders of their dire poverty and deprivation. When diplomat Christopher Hill appealed to the North Koreans for common steps to build mutual trust quickly, his use of the phrase “early harvest items” was misconstrued as literally meaning the harvesting of crops early to stave off starvation – something the famine-ridden country is all too familiar with.
“Early harvest means you are so goddamned starving you are basically eating the rice before it’s popped,” he recounted of the uncomfortable exchange.
Most former US negotiators do not expect any major breakthroughs from the upcoming summit in Singapore. Rather, if it goes well, a joint statement will be issued from both leaders, setting the stage for negotiations that could take months or even years to complete – if they don’t fall apart first.
“The real work is going to be the poor guys who have to negotiate after the summit,” said Gary Samore, who was a key participant in negotiating the US-Korea Agreed Framework in 1994 during the presidency of Bill Clinton that collapsed when North Korea was caught enriching uranium.
“So you still have to deal with the bureaucrats in the North Korean system to implement anything,” agreed Michael Green, who participated in the stillborn six-party talks during the Bush administration. “The experience generally everyone has is a buzz saw.”
Green and others shared some of their most important lessons from bargaining with what may be the world’s strangest regime:
The North Koreans likely will know as much as – if not more than – the American negotiators.
“What I have found is they are always – I mean always – very well prepared," said Siegfried Hecker, the former head of Los Alamos National Laboratory who was invited to North Korea seven times to inspect its nuclear facilities and participate in unofficial discussions. These guys are going to have done their homework. They are extremely knowledgeable on how the United States works – our political systems and on the nuclear front.”
In that sense, the North Koreans have an advantage. America’s political system is an open book, and anyone with an internet connection can become an expert in it. The mysteries of North Korea’s closed society and dictatorial government, by contrast, have long confounded outside observers.
North Korean officials are also intimately familiar with the long and sordid history of failed diplomacy with Washington. While Trump is midway through his second year as president and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been on the job for a little over a month, some North Korean officials have been representing their side for more than 20 years.
“People like Ri Yong-ho, the current minister of foreign affairs,” Hecker pointed put. “He was one of the architects on the Korean side of the Agreed Framework.”
Hecker also recalls dealing with Kim Kye-gwan, a vice-minister who issued a blistering statement expressing “repugnance” towards national security adviser John Bolton last month, as far back as 2002. “They have a sense of history and continuity,” he added.
Ambassador Christopher Hill, who met with the North Koreans 40 times over four years during the Bush administration – including three times in Pyongyang – agreed that “when you talk to them, you are going to be talking to well-informed people who know the arguments”.
He cited Choe Son-hui, also a vice-minister in the North Korean Foreign Ministry, who recently called vice-president Mike Pence a "political dummy."
“During my time, she was the interpreter for Kim Kye-gwan in our nuclear negotiations,” Hill said. “Now she calls herself a vice foreign minister and feels empowered to call our vice-president a dummy. That was amazing.”
Brace for lectures
During the talks in 2002, Green was enlisted to raise North Korea's dismal record of jailing and killing political dissidents and running forced labour camps.
It “was completely futile,” he said. “Their response was, ‘But you don't understand. Everyone is very happy.’ What do you say? Where do you even begin?”
During another impasse in the talks, Green, who now is senior vice-president for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, was asked to lead a more academic discussion about the international system.
Green boiled down his North Korean counterpart's dissertation on the state of global affairs: Kim Il-sung, Kim’s late grandfather and the founder of North Korea, “was responsible for everything”.
“Everything was Kim Il-sungism,” he remembers. “The entire world system was a struggle between Kim Il-sungism and imperialism. It was a real insight.”
“There are certain subjects you stay away from,” advised Joel Wit, who served as the coordinator for implementing the Agreed Framework and is now a senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “If you are experienced, you know you are not there to change their political system.”
Don’t be paralysed by their talking points
North Korean diplomats have little authority to actually negotiate without instructions from the very top, and thus mostly adhere to their script. That won’t be an issue when Trump talks to Kim in Singapore. But it will slow down any follow-up haggling by their subordinates.
“Their negotiators have no leeway,” said Green, who engaged in talks in New York and Pyongyang while on former President George W. Bush’s National Security Council. “They come in with talking points and they are completely inflexible. They stick with the talking points, and if you surprise them with a much more flexible position, they stick to the preprogrammed talking points, accusing you of being hardline and having a hostile policy.”
“The difference [in Singapore] is it is Kim Jong-un himself. The Kim Jong-un model so far with [President] Moon Jae-in of South Korea is a little more creative than his father or grandfather, but it’s similar in that it's very vague, no specifics,” he added.
“Their positions are very consistent,” agreed Samore, who also served on the National Security Council under former president Barack Obama and is now executive director for research at Harvard University’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs.
“Usually, when you are in these kinds of negotiations with anybody – even the Chinese – there is a certain amount of leeway or agility, but they didn’t have it," Green added. “They usually have to reconvene and then, the next day, take their positions.”
Prepare to be lied to
When confronted with damning information, the North Koreans are not likely to come clean – at least at first.
Hill, who now teaches diplomacy at the University of Denver, said a major challenge for the Americans will be how much lying about the extent of its nuclear and missile programmes to tolerate.
“The North Koreans gave us a declaration that made no mention of enriched uranium, no mention of why they had made purchases on the international market consistent with a highly enriched uranium programme,” he recalled. “Whatever they were going to say in their declaration, we couldn't really believe it.”
Green had a similar experience. “We knew quite conclusively that they were cheating by secretly developing uranium enrichment,” he recalled. “We confronted them. We didn't tell them how we knew or how much we knew. They denied it and accused us of trying to pull their pants down in front of the world.”
“The next day they came in,” he continued, “and acknowledged they had this programme and threatened us. It was very tense.”
Perry, the former secretary of defence, strongly believes that it is ultimately security guarantees and not economic incentives that isolated North Korea wants most. In other words, life insurance for the Kim dynasty, which is notoriously paranoid of a decapitation strike by the US military.
“Understanding why they built this is critical to understanding what it will take to give it up. They are not going to give up their nuclear arsenal without a viable commitment to their security,” he said, noting that sanctions have proven utterly ineffective in convincing Pyongyang to slow, let alone stand down, its nuclear and missile programmes.
Samore sees it that way, too. “I came away from that series of meetings convinced the North Koreans had to have nuclear weapons for their survival. That’s proved to be true.”
It all means that any expectation that North Korea is going to give up its small arsenal in relatively short order is unrealistic, all the veteran negotiators warned.
Eliminating North Korea’s weapons programme will require a step-by-step process likely to play out over many years, according to Hecker, who previously managed the development of America’s atomic weapons and is now at Stanford University's Centre for International Security and Cooperation.
“What I have been trying to advise our government is we have to design a process that I call ‘you halt, roll back, and then eventually eliminate’,” he said. That approach would quickly halt nuclear and missile testing; gradually dismantle nuclear facilities and bomb-making capacity; and ultimately allow inspections to verify that the work has been completed and guard against blatant cheating.
“The halt is something you do in months to a year. The rollback is something you can try to engineer for two to five years. The eliminate, maybe five to 10 or five to 15 years. That’s patience. You are going to have to work with the North Koreans – a phased approach where you get to a point where you have some confidence,” he explained. “But it isn't verifiable any time soon.”
Warned Wit: “Cheating is going to happen with any agreement with any country. This is the reality. But there is going to be a summit and there is going to be an agreement. The question is what happens after and our stick-to-it-iveness.”
Yet some still worry that the Trump administration may be aiming far too high.
“This is going to be a very tough negotiation. I don’t think they will give us very much,” Samore said. “We are past the point where elimination is a viable option. Trump is going into this negotiation with such an unrealistic view.”
Hill hopes not.
“If it is the whole Nixon-to-China thing, maybe Trump is the person who can do this,” he said. “But at some point, we have to have a president who understands some of these things and has an attention span greater than that of a six-year-old. So we've got some structural problems on our side.”