Beware the bait-and-switch
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
U.S. President Donald Trump prides himself as the master of the deal, as underscored in the title he chose for his 1987 bio “The Art of the Deal.” Since then, he has been scrupulous in keeping up the image that he plays hardball in deal-making. Self-made or not, that reputation has been tarnished by the little — or no — progress since his flamboyant summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12. Washington has lost face with the little headway it has made on the denuclearization front since the summit a month ago.
Trump now argues that rashness could spoil the process. “It’s like rushing the turkey out of the stove. It’s not going to be as good,” he told a rally in Fargo, North Dakota, before his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Pyongyang early this month in the hope of getting some details of the denuclearization. Since the summit there has been no talk of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID).
Last week, Trump said he won’t rush the denuclearization process, saying that there is “no time or speed limit.” It seems that Kim is already getting what he wants, a “phased synchronized” process. “Trump has been played by Kim,” observed Kang In-duk, former unification minister. Novelist Yi Mun-yol was more blunt — “Trump turned out to be dilettantish. He talks big, but has no real skills in deal-making.”
Trump remains self-righteous. He blamed “fake news” for distorting the “wonderful facts” about what he had achieved with North Korea. “There hasn’t been a missile or rocket fired in nine months in North Korea. There have been no nuclear tests, and we got back our hostage,” he tweeted. But North Korea does not need more nuke or missile tests because it declared it has already completed nuclear development.
Kim proved to be the true winner in deal-making. He is no longer regarded as a ruthless dictator. Everyone around the world knows North Korea is strong enough to get attention from the leaders of the U.S. and China. Kim even denied a meeting with Pompeo during his third visit to Pyongyang earlier this month.
North Korea manipulates international talks with a bait-and-switch strategy. The other party is duped and lured to the negotiating table with the vain hope that North Korea will be different this time, explained Chuck Downs in his book “Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy.” Song Seung-jong, a professor at Daejeon University who translated the book, said Pompeo has fallen for the bait.
North Korea has a staggering record in negotiation. “Washington has never won in dealing with Pyongyang,” said Chun Yung-woo, a former senior secretary on foreign and security affairs to President Lee Myung-bak. Pyongyang extended its winning streak in the showdown with Trump as well. The talks have hit a snag. It is Kim who has control. Why does Washington flounder? It should have paid heed to the advice of the legendary Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”
North Korea studied Trump in and out. He is someone who moves on instinct and improvidence. Kim’s aides have traced his style of language and dealing. Kim was trained to be hardy and tactful. Trump was condescending and chose not to study his opponent. Kang, the former unification minister who is familiar with negotiating with North Korea, observed a “lack of thoroughness and experience” from the Trump team in Singapore. “Making North Korea give up its prized nuclear weapons is different from striking a property deal. Money cannot be the sole issue,” he said.
The lead-up to the meeting between Kim and Trump was tantalizing. On May 2, Trump called off the summit planned for June 12. Shortly after, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan issued a statement highlighting the importance of the summit. Then, on June 1, Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the North’s Workers’ Party and director of its United Front Department, flew to Washington.
After Trump’s ego was satisfied he suddenly turned positive about a successful summit and arrived in Singapore ahead of schedule. But it was Washington that was more desperate now. Pompeo stressed the CVID principle. Pyongyang tried brinkmanship and eventually Trump replaced CVID with the ambiguous term of “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
The so-called “salami tactics” — in which North Korea attempts to draw concessions in return for thin salami-like slices of disarmament gestures — has evolved. Pyongyang split the one-time chance Trump offered in Singapore. It diverted the topic of the deal. The nuclear weapons, facilities and materials all fell under separate categories for negotiation. Kim leaked his plan of dismantling a missile engine test site, which caught Trump’s attention as his top mission has been to remove the danger of nuclear-tipped missiles flying to the U.S. mainland to score points with voters. North Korea separated a declaration to end the Korean War from denuclearization. Declaring an end to the armistice would lead to a peace treaty and the normalization of ties between North Korea and the U.S.
To Trump, military prowess has been leveraged in deal-making. He advises the you never enter negotiations without leverage. But he broke his own rule. He gave up the leverage of combined military exercises. He claims he has saved millions of dollars in tax spending by stopping the expensive war games. Chun, the former presidential adviser on security, observed that Seoul and Washington have given up valuable leverage that could have been bargained for a freeze in the North’s nuclear program.
North Korea abhors the South-U.S. military exercises. Suspending them would have been a gesture of good faith. But Pyongyang sneered cynically that South Korea and the U.S. talked up the move as a grand gesture while they could resume the exercises any time. North Korea does not concede easily. The more it gets, the more it demands.
Pyongyang has found Pompeo an easy target to tame. It criticized him for making gangster-like demands on denuclearization. According to Adm. Charles Turner Joy, writer of “How Communists Negotiate,” communists exploit the innate impatience of Western people. The former admiral and commander of the U.S. Navy dealt with his North Korean and Chinese counterparts during the UN-led negotiations on the armistice to end the 1950-53 Korean War. In his memoir, he detailed the tactics North Koreans used to delay, frustrate and manipulate talks. Slander invokes impatience.
The two sides are wrangling over the return of the remains of U.S. soldiers. The repatriation should not be the essence of the U.S.-North talks. North Korea expert Robert Gallucci, who was the U.S.’s point man in nuclear talks in 1994, warned of Pyongyang’s bait-and-switch strategy as it has a flair for saying one thing and doing another.
The Trump team has itself to blame for underestimating North Korea. The North Korean team far excels in experience in high-stakes international negotiations. Kim Yong-chol is a veteran. He has represented Pyongyang in talks since the inter-Korean high-level talks in September 1990. He is backed up by the equally experienced Kim Kye-gwan, a 75-year-old diplomat who has been on the scene since the early 1980s. The know-how and negotiation skills of the old-boy members are alive.
Pompeo is a novice compared to them. He first addressed Kim as “Chairman Un,” reading his name in the American way. Gallucci in 2014 recalled that U.S. officials had been ignorant about North Korea when they went to Geneva in 1994, and have not become any wiser to this day. There are few in the White House and State Department who know North Korea well.
North Koreans also make mistakes. They have been confounded by surprise moves. When South Korea was inundated with heavy rain fall in September 1984, North Korea offered aid in rice and cement. It obviously made the gesture as propaganda, thinking South Korea would refuse. South Korea had a different idea. President Chun Doo Hwan willingly accepted the offer. The poverty-stricken North Korea had to squeeze out its stock to fill the shipments.
The dictatorship’s weakness is securing funding. The U.S. Treasury Department in September 2005 sanctioned Banco Delta Asia, an obscure bank in the Chinese gambling enclave of Macao by naming it as a “willing pawn” of the North Korean leadership. The North Korean accounts believed to include savings of then leader Kim Jong-il were immediately frozen. At the time, Kim Kye-gwan refused to come to the six-party talks unless the freeze on the accounts was lifted. Then U.S. senior delegate After Christopher Hill, the undersecretary of state, gave in and the sanctions on the accounts were lifted in 2007.
Wartime president Syngman Rhee stunned both his allies and enemies through his unilateral decision to release 25,000 prisoners of war in June 1953 in protest of the armistice negotiation. His action upset the cease-fire negotiations among the U.S., China and North Korea. As a result, Washington persuaded Seoul to accept the arrangement in return for a permanent mutual security pact, which ended up being the biggest deterrence against North Korea’s ambitions over the South. Then U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon in his memoir remembered Rhee’s insightfulness to stress the “importance of being unpredictable.”
The U.S. has been battered but it can still recover in future negotiations on drawing up the roadmap for denuclearization. It has ample experience in failures and stalemates in negotiations with North Korea. Joy, Gallucci, and Hill could all share their experience.
The Trump team must learn from past mistakes. It also must turn to South Korea for help. He must put President Moon Jae-in back in the driver’s seat, as no other country knows North Korea better than South Korea.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 19, Page 26