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Wang Son-taek is diplomatic correspondent for South Korea's YTN news network and one of the country's leading journalists on North Korea and diplomatic affairs.
North Korea this weekend showed off its unique brand of brinksmanship diplomacy before and after the first round of reopened working-level negotiations in Stockholm, Sweden.
They launched an SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) just two days before the meeting. And the chief of the North Korean delegation delivered a ready-made commentary within just half an hour of the negotiations coming to an end.
In that statement, ambassador Kim Myong Gil argued that the negotiations were broken, and blamed the U.S. for not bringing new methods and keeping up a hostile policy against the DPRK.
The U.S. provided a more positive description of proceedings, arguing that both sides discussed serious topics and that they proposed to continue to talk about intensive engagement.
North Korea fought back again: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) used harsher language in a “spokesperson’s press statement,” stating that the talks were “disgusting” and that they were losing willingness to continue as the U.S.’s attitude has not changed.
The DPRK’s strange behavior shocked many observers. Even longtime observers are busy trying to figure out why North Korea is threatening to destroy their hard-won negotiation opportunity.
The reason is pretty obvious: North Korea engages in brinksmanship diplomacy, and they do this because it’s the only option they can and should choose.
IT’S WRITTEN IN THEIR OLD PLAYBOOK
North Korea began brinksmanship diplomacy as the Cold War was coming to an end, when it was practically abandoned by long-time sponsor countries like the USSR and China. They had to worry about the survival of the country, and brinksmanship diplomacy was the only option they had — it’s the perfect strategy for an underdog player like the DPRK.
The brinksmanship of the early 1990s was successful. When North Korea had serious negotiations concerning their nuclear program with the U.S. in 1993 and 1994, they secured heavy fuel oil and light-water reactors, together with the survival of the country, in return for freezing their nuclear facilities at Yongbyon.
All North Korea could give to the other side was a promise that they would not make any more big noises. So Kang Sok Ju, the-then first vice minister of the foreign ministry during 1990s, had no choice but to try his best at threatening the U.S. delegation team.
He threatened that he would not come back again if the U.S. were not ready to offer big concessions to the DPRK — Kim Kye Gwan, the longtime vice minister of the MFA, did the same thing during the Six-Party Talks from 2003 to 2009.
This tough diplomacy means North Korean delegations now need to look like tough guys
The new chief of the North Korean delegation foretold his own announcement of the failure of the negotiations, regardless of what the U.S. delegation was going to offer, before he arrived in Sweden when he met some reporters at an airport in Beijing.
Mr. Kim told the reporters that he had “high expectations and optimism” for the meeting. But the message behind this remark was that he was going to be disappointed by the U.S. offer because there was no possibility that the U.S. side would offer anything satisfactory.
FOREIGN MINISTRY NEEDS TO BE TOUGH
The negotiations in Stockholm meant a lot to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because they had recovered the lead role in negotiations with foreign countries like the U.S.
The United Front Department (UFD) of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) had taken the main role in negotiations with the U.S. since preparations for the historic summit in Singapore last year.
However, after the second summit between the two leaders in Hanoi ended without any visible results, doubts were raised about the capability and effectiveness of the UFD leadership.
After a policy review, it appears that Chairman Kim decided that the UFD should step back and the MFA should take the reigns in negotiations with the U.S.
The North concluded in this policy review that the UFD’s negotiation tactics were not effective and that they needed to find some new ones.
The UFD’s policy could be said to have been submissive diplomacy, so the MFA needed to take a tough new stance — and the old tactic of brinksmanship is a famous form of tough diplomacy.
This tough diplomacy means North Korean delegations now need to look like tough guys.
This could be seen when the U.S. side described the recent negotiations in Sweden as positive – on the contrary, it seems the MFA wasn’t too satisfied with the results of the talks, releasing another statement using much tougher language to reflect that tough guy image.
SAVING FACE FOR THE SUPREME LEADER
One of the big new missions the North Korean delegation should take on might be helping the Supreme Leader save face after the Hanoi summit.
At the second U.S.-DPRK summit in February, Chairman Kim lost face when President Trump rejected the idea of the North destroying a major nuclear complex in Yongbyon in return for partial sanctions relief.
This idea was an extremely bold and revolutionary move in the eyes of the North Koreans. Chairman Kim decided to push it because he wanted to end a historic showdown on the nuclear issue and begin pushing domestic economic development plans.
After the Hanoi summit fell apart, Choe Son Hui, then vice minister of the foreign ministry, told reporters that the U.S. had lost a “golden opportunity” which would come only once in a thousand times.
The remark might have reflected how Chairman Kim felt humiliated and shamed after disregarding the voices of warning from his staff in pursuit of the Yongbyon-for-sanctions relief deal.
The delegation should therefore tease the U.S. delegation as much as they can in order to make the U.S. side recognize that they have to pay the price for rejecting such a golden opportunity from the Supreme Leader.
BRACE YOURSELF FOR INSULTS
As North Korea has decided to push ahead with brinksmanship diplomacy, early talks may be filled with painful attacks on the U.S. negotiation team.
The U.S. team should be prepared for the worst kinds of attacks by the North, including threats, cursing, deception, harassment, and so on. They should also brace themselves for other difficulties like anachronistic stubbornness and irresponsible bureaucracy.
Stubborn brinksmanship has killed a ‘golden opportunity’ before
The North Korean playbook of brinksmanship diplomacy is old, and the players in these talks could use these old codes for their communication.
If both sides cannot understand the codes of communication of the other side it will be extremely difficult to have intensive dialogue and reach a compromise.
Stubborn brinksmanship has killed a ‘golden opportunity’ before. In mid-September 1999, the then Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea, Mr. Kim Yong Nam, was traveling to New York via Frankfurt in Germany.
At the airport in Frankfurt, a security officer demanded Kim take off his shoes. He regarded the demand as an attack on North Korea and ended his journey there. But the cancellation of his New York visit actually disrupted a quiet plan for the arrangement of a meeting between him and a high-ranking U.S. official, possibly the vice president of the United States.
The plan was initiated and prepared by the then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, and the high-level meeting of the two sides was critically delayed to around a month later.
It was too late, and the golden opportunity to normalize relations between the North and the U.S. was gone due to stubborn brinksmanship diplomacy.
North Korean bureaucracy can also mean serious trouble for the U.S. team. The requests recently made by the North were too high and too wide-ranging.
If the North Korean side calculates that they can’t achieve the best possible results, they could try to turn negotiations into a blame game, rather than try to compromise.
They would do this because bureaucrats know that compromise could be more dangerous than a breakdown with no deal. When there is no deal, they can find somebody else to blame.
IT’S NOT ALL DOOM AND GLOOM
North Korea’s brinksmanship diplomacy is not all bad news.
First, there is no other method North Korean negotiators can use except this one. If they choose another strategy, they can’t achieve the best possible results because North Korea is a small and poor country.
Poor countries don’t have much leverage to win in negotiations against big and rich countries, especially superpowers like the U.S. Whether you like it or not, brinksmanship diplomacy is an indispensable method in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.
Second, the foreign ministry is the best (and only) group of people in North Korea in terms of knowledge and experiences. Other groups in the North are brought up to fight against the U.S., not to compromise.
So the fact that the North Korean negotiation team was reshuffled, and reorganized mainly with diplomats, should be good news — even though they, as bureaucrats, may slow any progress in getting things done.
Third, it seems that Chairman Kim still desires to develop the North. If this continues to be the case, it’s possible for us to believe that elements of diplomatic negotiations will concern economic development.
MAXIMIZE MERITS, MINIMIZE FLAWS
So, brinksmanship is not a good thing nor a bad thing in itself. But how to maximize the merits and minimize the flaws of the other side’s tactics?
It may be worth learning from Ambassador Christopher Hill here, who once said that the best way to get good results in negotiations is to figure out what the other side wants and then try to help them to get their results. In the case of North Korea, however, that might be easier said than done.
Edited by Oliver Hotham and James Fretwell
Featured image: KCNA