[SEOUL LOUNGE] Clunk! A kicked can hits alley’s end

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[SEOUL LOUNGE] Clunk! A kicked can hits alley’s end

The revelation that North Korea had rewritten their constitution caught much of the diplomatic and other communities off guard. The reaction was almost funny when one recalls a number of pundits, outside of various government inner circles, have been predicting this type of outcome for a good half-dozen years.

Privately, no doubt many government North Korea watchers have been predicting the North Koreans would sooner or later make it clear that they could not be persuaded from becoming a nuclear power. But publicly, the spin we have endured has been exasperating in terms of credibility and, sometimes, intellectual honesty.

One may say that is the nature of traditional diplomacy — thinking and acting secretly one way while making public pronouncements, explanations and rationales that obfuscate what is really going on. However, secrecy and confidentiality are increasingly becoming more problematic in this age of ubiquitous information sharing.

WikiLeaks may be the most egregious example, but anyone with a halfway decent education and above average inclination can do a surprisingly good job keeping pace on political and diplomatic developments given the Internet’s cyberleaks and indiscretions, as the world evolves into a neural network of info sharing.

The question that comes to mind in light of this latest North Korean cage rattle is who actually has a better grasp of the overarching reality? Are they the paid, “in the know” professionals — or the rank, amateur busybodies, present company included?

Having friends in diplomatic services, I respect their training and analytical skills, not to mention their access to what may still be considered to be “classified information.” All of that is very much in these folks’ favor. Counterbalancing at least some of that is my friends operating in relatively closed environments. In other words, in-group thinking seems to pervade many of the comments I hear or read — some of which appears as a chauvinism, telling the public what we “need to know” or what traditional statecraft mandates as public misinformation. Certainly there will always be a need for such tactics.

At the same time, I often wonder how much of the nonsense I have heard, such as the rationalization of the six-party talks succeeding, is in fact a product of in-group thinking.

I’ve seen this mentality at work elsewhere. I once worked for a high tech company that had an incredible core technology that succeeded in spite of truly ridiculous marketing. Because the unique technology largely sold itself, the marketing department quite undeservedly took a good deal of credit for the engineers’ labor. Since overall the company was enjoying large revenue streams regardless of what the marketing department did, the marketing department considered itself on top of its game.

Like companies that take for granted the sources of their income, government agencies can act as if the taxpayer’s funds will nonetheless be forthcoming — at least at minimal levels, regardless of agency performance.

Sometimes I see parallels in diplomacy. Particularly among some of the larger, wealthier countries, the foreign affairs departments are heavily staffed, so there are always plenty of opportunities for plausible deniability, such as “I don’t know who told you such a thing …” or “Whoever said that must mean something else.” With smaller diplomatic missions and foreign affair departments, though, there are many fewer chances to dodge the bullet.

Perhaps smaller states have simpler diplomatic goals and challenges. But I doubt it. They just have fewer resources and people. And that means they cannot afford as easily to engage in political gamesmanship amongst themselves and the public. Of course, small countries’ diplomats often are required or tempted to do the same as larger nations, but the short- to medium-term personal blowback is much more certain, resulting in hesitancy.

So does all of this mean one’s best source of information comes from smaller diplomatic missions? Things are not so simple, and I have learned getting it from the big horses’ mouths is often too hedged to be credible.

My assessment of much of this will probably be tested in the coming weeks as representatives of the six party talks publicly announce the future of the six-party talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament. If we witness yet more wistful suggestions that there may be ways to talk Pyongyang into giving up its nukes, either the diplomats will be taking us all for chumps — or we may be in a worse state than we have imagined. But simply not recognizing North Korea’s new constitution will be like leaving home on a rainy day for a picnic — without an umbrella.

*The author is president of Soft Landing Korea, a business development firm, and an alliance partner of Odgers Berndtson Japan, a global Big Six executive recruitment consulting company.

by Tom Coyner
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