Persuading Pyongyang: A Non-Confidential Memo for the Trump-Kim Talks
By Jasper Kim
Jasper Kim, JD/MBA, is the author of Persuasion: The Hidden Forces That Influence Negotiations (Routledge 2018). He is a lawyer, former investment banker, and Director of the Center for Conflict Management at Ewha University in Seoul, Korea. He was a former visiting scholar at Harvard University and Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter: @JasperKim101.
APG note: this blog is a partial version of the full CNN article found here.
The two most dramatic political figures in modern history—US president Donald Trump and the DPRK’s Kim Jong Un—have agreed in principle to meet in face-to-face negotiations. Will the Trump-Kim talks lead to an epic battle with only one man standing to claim victory? Or could the first talks between a sitting US president and North Korea’s leader culminate towards cooperation?
To Trump, who famously quipped that “Everything is negotiable,” he likely sees the talks as transactional within the broader strokes of the “art of the deal.” Trump’s background hails from the world of high stakes real estate deals in New York. A leader knowingly or unknowingly takes such experience and outlook to higher office. This may be why Trump believes he must always exude uber-confidence and strength. The world, as viewed from his purview, exists in a Hobbesian state, a law of the jungle that can fluctuate wildly and precariously. Thus, his modus operandi is: a good offense is the best defense. No middle ground exists. You are either in the fight club or not.
All the while, Kim Jong Un is watching. So what could North Korea’s Supreme Leader be thinking regarding the prospect of negotiating with Trump who previously proclaimed, “I’m really a great negotiator, I know how to negotiate, I like making deals”? It could be that Kim now views Trump with an increasing level of recognition and respect, formed by watching the commander-in-chief in action since taking office. Based on such observations from Kim’s line of sight, when it comes to the use of possible force, Trump seems like he could truly mean what he says. And this could be the ultimate wake-up call for Kim. If a Stalinist-inspired leader understands one thing, it is the use of force.
A fear factor is also at play within such recognition and respect. In fact, the fear factor is arguably what is driving Kim and Trump together towards the same path of direct talks. They both, albeit reluctantly, now fear and respect each other to the point where neither one sees a more viable option than entering into negotiations. In an ironic twist, both also share similar negotiation tactics. Trump and Kim have each made audacious claims towards a course of action, from constructing walls to launching missile tests, that embolden key domestic audiences. They may not like or trust one other, but Trump and Kim can certainly understand each other.
In a high-stakes negotiation game of one-on-one, tit-for-tat, one-upsmanship, both Trump and Kim increased their rhetoric to the seemingly very outer limits. This was their way of stress-testing the other’s mettle. But neither has blinked in this ultimate game of chicken set at the world stage for all to see. However, perhaps intentionally or accidentally, such actions and fear factor have led to an unlikely state of mutual recognition and respect. Both view the other as having the real potential to take action if perceived as being ignored, slighted, or disrespected. At the same time, Kim and Trump realize that a possible next step in escalation across a fuzzy, undefined, and blurry redline would not yield any benefit for either side. Crossing such redline would lead to a more than likely mutually-assured destruction (MAD) outcome. Of course, based on iterated war game simulations, the US would win such a conflict. But the more calibrated question is: “win” at what cost, economically, reputationally, and in terms of how many lives lost?
From Kim Jong Un’s perspective, his world is a Stalinist world largely frozen in time since the 1950-53 Korean War. Like Trump, Kim also sees the world in Hobbesian terms. To protect himself and his homeland, Kim wants nuclear weapons as a protective shield, similar to how a person may want a gun to safeguard his or her home. Kim also wants economic assistance to protect himself and those loyal to him. But the savvy negotiator’s question is not “what” a person wants, but “why” a person wants it. Such framing shift prompts a negotiation paradigm shift from a competitive (distributive, win-lose) mindset to a cooperative (integrative, win-win) mindset.
Given this, the fundamental questions should also shift from positional-based questions—such as the number of nuclear weapons North Korea may want, or the number of US troops remaining in South Korea—to instead ask “why” interest-based questions often hiding and lurking underneath such positions. Why, for instance, would a secluded state want nuclear weapons, akin to why would a person want a weapon for protection at home? If it is fear of aggression, what is the best solution to remedy such fear? These are often the invisible influencers in a negotiation Yet despite Trump and Kim’s seeming positional differences, both share some common interests, from selflessly altruistic to purely self-focused. These range from securing peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region to cementing their respective legacies.