Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behaviour by Scott Snyder is reviewed by John Hemmings
Every now and again, “rogue” or revolutionary states have challenged the diplomatic status quo, both in style and in the content of their diplomacy. In his excellent book Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behaviour (2002), Scott Snyder searches for patterns behind the seemingly irrational behaviour of negotiators from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). He argues that despite their apparent irrationality, DPRK negotiating strategy is heavily influenced by historical and cultural factors. Historically, Japanese colonialism has played a large role in defining the DPRK and shaping its primary ideological principle juche (loosely translated as self-reliance). In turn, juche has been pivotal in informing the behaviour of the hermit kingdom with the outside world. The political isolation of the DPRK has been dictated by choice as much as it has been the fate of having been on the losing side in the Cold War. Snyder explores how DPRK diplomatic strategy has sought to optimize its vulnerable and weak isolated position by instigating crises, from which it can then negotiate from a relative position of strength. In many ways, the DPRK has been successful in this strategy, but Snyder shows that in the long run, the policy has been weakened by becoming predictable.
Juche is considered carefully by Snyder, and he contrasts it with the traditional concept of sadaejuui (serving the great) which was used to describe and justify the tributary relationship between Korea and China during the Yi dynasty. Snyder ascribes its origin to an early 20th century Korean nationalist Sin Chae Ho, though apparently this has been expunged from the official DPRK historiography. He also shows how the concept is similar to the Western concept of sovereignty and seems to mean self-reliance or independence. Juche’s role in DPRK diplomacy has shown itself in their insistence on equivalency and reciprocity with the US, though this has usually played itself out in form and style, rather than actual substance, as for example in the wording or disguising of DPRK concessions. Where juche has played a pivotal role in substantial agreements, it has usually been to the detriment of talks or the DPRK’s material interests. Snyder cites the numerous rejections of “humanitarian” offers of rice by the ROK and Japan by North Korea – because of the symbolic overtones of failed self-sufficiency - even in times of famine and dire need. Though his analysis of juche is historical and well-linked to current DPRK political behaviour, Snyder does not explore the form of juche similarly practiced by the ROK. Although Snyder examines the long run of failed negotiations between the ROK and the DPRK, he ascribes this to the “Toughness Dilemma”, which appears in Harold Nicholson’s work Diplomacy (1939), rather than exploring the equally possible theory that juche is having a negative effect on communication between the two parties. Since this principle plays a pivotal role in DPRK politics, it would be interesting to examine it a little more thoroughly, and see if it is indeed applied rationally.
One weakness in Snyder’s analysis is his lack of focus on the role of the DPRK leadership and its impact on DPRK diplomacy. He does look at the cult of personality developed by Kim Il Sung as well as the continuation of Confucian norms within North Korean politics, but he does not analyse the part played by the man himself, nor his son, Kim Jong Il in modern negotiations. Naturally, this might be because of the secretive nature of the regime, but this should only make analysis difficult, not impossible. Snyder claims to have interviewed various DPRK diplomats as well as the numerous US, Japanese and ROK negotiators. Using a combination of sources, it might have been both interesting and useful to build a picture of the part that Kim Jong Il has played in the Nuclear Crisis and Six Party Talks, and whether there is a triangulation of power between Kim Jung Il, and say, Kim Yong Nam (the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly) and Pak Pong Ju (the Premier of the DPRK). If Kim Jung Il truly is the sole source of power in North Korea, then it is all the more necessary to build up a picture of the man himself, and the influence that he has directly had on the negotiating strategy and tactics of the DPRK, much as any picture of 1930’s German diplomacy without Hitler would be incomplete. Unfortunately, Snyder takes such a historical and institutional approach to his analysis, that he overlooks the necessity of understanding the most pivotal man in the equation.
One way of understanding the patterns of diplomacy executed by the DPRK is to look at the rhythms and patterns it follows time and time again. In Chapter 2, Snyder examines these in “virtual space” as it were, weaving together an “imaginary session” and how it might be conducted. His account of the DPRK team, its composition, and their relationship to the internal bureaucratic structure is interesting, particularly the use of “America experts”, trained intensively by the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The use of the North Korean Press (an arm of the DPRK state) in signalling to the outside world is highly interesting and insightful. Naturally, as with all totalitarian states, it is understood that most signalling is for domestic consumption, indicating current party policy and thinking to other branches of the state, such as the military, party organs, or the general public, but certain media outlets, such as the Korean Central News Agency are also used to signal future stances or positions to opposing negotiating powers. An intense campaign (or its absence) of demonizing “US Imperialism” or “ROK aggression” can be a pre-negotiation signal to those states on the likely toughness of the DPRK’s opening stance in upcoming negotiations. Snyder shows us a pattern reveals itself more fully in the strong opening, where plenary sessions are used for propaganda value and show little flexibility of position. This is followed by informal sessions, in which “trial balloons” are floated, and weaknesses of their opponents explored and analysed. If the punuigi (loosely translated as atmosphere) is right, then DPRK negotiators will continue to engage in bargaining, as their position hardens in an attempt to maximize concessions from the other side. Often, DPRK negotiators will dangle agreement before the eyes of their opponents, only to snatch it away in a bid to maximize their final position. Again, Snyder emphasizes that DPRK negotiators can be extremely stubborn, and attempt to maximize concessions without giving anything in return. He ascribes this to the need for DPRK negotiators to show the leadership in Pyongyang that they have tried their hardest, and suffered kosaeng (pain through perseverance) in the process.
Snyder’s analysis of how the DPRK “context” translates into behaviour in Chapter 3 is thorough and convincing. North Koreans are not irrational, but rather driven by strategic weaknesses to act in a certain way, and he compares DPRK negotiations with US teams, versus DPRK negotiations with ROK and Korean Peninsular Energy Development Organization (KEDO) teams in Chapters 4 and 5 to show this. The strategic context of North Korea is described as follows: the end of the Cold War created an unfavourable environment for the DPRK, and as a result, it has been forced to negotiate for resources necessary to regime’s survival by using extreme tactics. The use of crisis diplomacy has not only gained the attention of the West, but has also given the DPRK leverage over the US and other regional powers that put a priority on non-proliferation and arms control. The DPRK’s threat to walk out of the NPT, and its missile tests over the Japanese mainland have allowed the regime to pursue negotiations with a strength out of proportion to its size and strategic position. Snyder examines the different tactics of DPRK negotiators in the resulting discussions from 1993 to 1997 and identifies the following re-occurring stratagems: brinkmanship including such actions as demanding unilateral concessions, bluffing and making threats, manufacturing deadlines, threatening to walk away from the table, and blaming the other side for failure. Other tactics, separate from brinkmanship include demonstrating suffering during the negotiations and using face-saving psychological pressure. Snyder’s analysis here is very good, and he details what these tactics mean in conventional diplomatic negotiations and then discusses how they differ in the hands of the DPRK teams. For instance, he demonstrates how the DPRK have often demanded unilateral concessions for coming to the negotiating table, and how these concessions have always been “pocketed” rather than reciprocated. This occurred in the summer of 1995 when North Korea “pocketed” 650,000 tons of rice given by South Korea and Japan without re-opening negotiations as those states had hoped. This has been useful in the short term for North Korea, as their “unrealistically aggressive” position can gain the benefits that come from taking a maximalist position, as settling below these initial positions can still bring in high rewards. In the long run, however, Snyder shows that the price of these tactics has been the loss of good-will from the opposing negotiating teams, and a hardening of US, ROK and Japanese positions. The bluffs and threats of the DPRK are now routinely taken lightly, but initially they had an unsettling effect on US negotiating team, as for example, when North Korea stated that economic sanctions would be considered “an act of war” and it would respond as such. Threats like this have a very real meaning for the US and South Korean teams; Seoul, with its 10 million souls, is less than 30 miles from the DMZ, within artillery range of the DPRK. Credibility becomes a problem as it is more difficult to discern the “real” position of the DPRK, since many of their threats are bluffs. They have however, Snyder allows, followed through with their threats to retain “just enough” credibility.
Another rational, long-term strategy that the DPRK has utilized is trying to deal with its opponents on a bilateral basis, and wherever possible divide the US-ROK and US-Japan security relationships. It has done this in a number of ways, including offering large-scale concessions on the nuclear issue within bilateral negotiations with the US alone. Since the ROK and the DPRK have had a rocky history of negotiations, remarkable more for propaganda aimed at domestic audiences, than for good will and substantial agreement, the US reluctantly agreed to work without the ROK in the initial 1993 negotiations in Geneva. Famously, the ROK sent a high-ranking ambassador to Geneva, unannounced, to monitor the Agreed Framework talks on the ground. He was quickly sidelined by the US delegation there, since the US was already briefing the ROK government daily at its Seoul Embassy and at the ROK Embassy in Washington DC. However, it gave ROK diplomats a bitter sense of being excluded, something intended by the DPRK, no doubt. Despite these manipulations, the US was careful to include clauses requiring North-South dialogue as part of the Geneva Agreed Framework, and its creation of KEDO cleverly created a pan-regional body, composed of Japanese, US, and ROK delegates, empowered to negotiate with the DPRK on the behalf of their respective governments. Snyder’s account is very able, and he weaves DPRK strategy and tactics with US-ROK-Japanese counter-tactics throughout his account with strong anecdotes.
Though Snyder’s analysis of these patterns is useful, a case study or two might better serve his work, by way of example. His overall examination of DPRK negotiations does indeed answer the question of whether North Korean negotiators are rational, but not in very great detail. Or rather, the details are there, but they are sprinkled throughout his text in no temporal or historical order. One feels that one is jumping backward and forward to different meetings and accounts of the DPRK which serve merely to illustrate the particular points he is trying to make. This technique serves to highlight the importance of the editing done by Snyder himself in creating the picture of the DPRK which we finally begin to develop. It is difficult for the reader to get any real sense of the negotiations in their nitty-gritty detail, and instead we are left with broad brushstrokes which serve as an approximation at best. A close meeting-by-meeting account of the 1993 Geneva Agreed Framework Negotiations, mentioned above, might serve this purpose admirably since that series of negotiations contained great highs and lows, bluffs and counter-bluffs, tricks, threats, and concessions, ultimately concluding successfully for both sides. Rather than just relying on the author to deliver his conclusions to us, we could also make some of our own. Furthermore, a similar series of negotiations between the ROK, Japan, or KEDO, could serve as a useful compare and contrast model. Snyder does devote all of Chapter 5 to this purpose, but again he draws the most useful lessons from the negotiations and discusses them in themes or tactics rather than presenting a blow-by-blow narrative of one series of negotiations from which we can draw our own conclusions. Obviously, this type of political history is full of trivial minutiae and it must be difficult to attempt such a project in the first place without being overwhelmed. Snyder’s work is very useful to someone who is only casually acquainted with the subject matter, but for professionals in the field who are intent on applying lessons learnt, a causal understanding of events and repercussions would be better served by a temporal narrative of a given case-study. As of July 2007, the IEAE has confirmed that North Korea has shut down its nuclear reactors, and received the funds it so badly wanted. It has suddenly claimed that it wants two light water reactors (LWR) in return for this good behaviour, again showing us that even in it moment of apparent submission, North Korea is always capable of surprising the rest of the world with its demands.