Can Negotiation Theory Help Find Peace on the Korean Peninsula?

by Briana Johnson on October 27, 2021

This is a guest post from Eric N. Richardson, author of  “The Art of Getting More Back in Diplomacy: Negotiation Lessons from North Korea, China, Libya, and the United Nations,” from the University of Michigan Press. This volume is available for purchase in hardcover, paper, as well as accessible ebook formats. 

Notoriously frosty, North Korea’s warm response to recent appeals to declare an end to the Korean War is an example of a crafty negotiation strategy, of the type analyzed in The Art of Getting More Back in Diplomacy, my new book being published October 26 by the University of Michigan Press. North Korea initially responded cautiously to calls at the UN General Assembly by South Korea’s President that the “community of nations mobilizes its strengths for [an] end-of-war declaration on the Korean Peninsula.” But shortly thereafter, the sister of North Korea’s leader contradicted her foreign ministry spokesperson and said that declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean war was an “interesting and admirable idea.”

Why did North Korea seemingly change its tune? One answer can be found from negotiation theory as elaborated in the dozen case studies from China, Libya, the UN, and other multiparty negotiations highlighted in Getting More Back.  Though focused on diplomacy examples, my new book offers tools, tactics, and strategies that anyone can use to get more back in a negotiation. You don’t have to be a diplomat or an international businessman to use the lessons I illustrate – they can also help you get a better price on a new car or negotiate domestic tasks with your partner or children. 

The case studies of Getting More Back illustrate how to use negotiation tools such as the BATNA – the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. By warming to the idea of a declaration to end the Korean War, North Korea is considering its BATNA, and knows it has little to lose by entertaining the idea of a declaration to end the Korean War. Most of the international structures which inhibit North Korea’s security and economic development are holdovers from that war. If those structures were dismantled – along with more recent UN sanctions passed because of North Korean nuclear and missile tests – North Korea could benefit handsomely.   

But, if an end of war declaration does not bring North Korea the benefits it seeks, it can also stand pat. In other words, its alternative to a new agreement is not so bad – a continuation of the status quo. This would mean North Korea continues its economic isolation and deprivation, whereby most of the country lives in poverty, a form of self-reliance that North Korea has suffered throughout its 70+ year history. It also means North Korea will continue to develop its security “deterrent” – a nuclear and missile capability through which it attempts to have the ability to launch a warhead that could strike the U.S. mainland, potentially even with a nuclear device attached. 

In short, North Korea’s warming towards the international community’s idea of declaring an end to the Korean War is a no lose proposition. North Korea can explore an end of war declaration without risk. And it needs the economic benefits that some South Korean officials and companies are eager to send Pyongyang’s way.  The North’s economy, already struggling in self-imposed isolation and failed central planning, today suffers under a pandemic-inspired lockdown that has cut off almost all international trade. Years of sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s missile and nuclear programs have further undercut its ability to develop or reform. This coming winter, the DPRK faces multiple potential crises including a potential food shortage, severe flooding as in past years, and the risk of a coronavirus outbreak, although the country claims its extreme lockdown measures have prevented even a single case of COVID in the DPRK.

So how should the United States respond to North Korea’s potential warming tone? One option is to continue the policies of the past 20 years – ignore North Korea, threaten it with further sanctions, or exercise “strategic patience,” during which past administrations have accepted the status quo while maintaining the fiction that they insist on North Korea dismantling its nuclear capabilities and giving up its handful of nuclear weapons. Another option is to draw the North out of its isolation. As Getting More Back outlines, the U.S. could give North Korea respect – a commodity which the U.S. has in almost unlimited supply. Giving respect through holding summits with North Korea’s leader was an approach President Trump attempted, holding out the prospect of a brighter economic future for Pyongyang if it ended its nuclear programs. But, at a decisive summit in Hanoi, Trump reverted to his real-estate mogul tactics and walked away from a potential deal, embarrassing his North Korean counterpart. As Getting More Back highlights, walking away from an international negotiation without knowing how to get back to the bargaining table is a classic error of businessmen who try to transfer their negotiating style to the domain of international politics. Brinksmanship may work well in a business deal when the cost of destroying relationships is just moving from one deal to another. But in the international community, where diplomats and countries remain in place for long periods of time, these sharp tactics can burn bridges, such as those President Trump burned in his dealings with North Korea.

Another reason for the U.S. to consider working with North Korea from a basis of respect is to help Washington prepare for what seems destined to be its next Cold War, against North Korea’s ally and erstwhile patron China. China has spent the past decade wooing U.S. allies like South Korea into an economic relationship with China, while they maintain a political or defense alliance with the United States. Might it not be time for the U.S. to turn the tables and make some offers to lure away one of Beijing’s stalwart allies in Pyongyang? 

In negotiation theory terms, the U.S. would be smart to pursue offense instead of defense. Take the game to North Korea, and to China, by deploying any of the dozens of negotiation tools outlined in Getting More Back.  Sure, North Korea can always say no and retreat to its BATNA – a status quo of isolation, occasional missile tests, and an economy that leaves most of its people in poverty. Or it could see the possibility of a more integrated future – integrated with South Korea, the Asian region, and, eventually with the entire global community. The U.S. has little to lose by trying some of these tactics. But if Washington continues to rest on “strategic patience,” it might find its own Worst Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement – a North Korea whose missile technology is sufficiently advanced that it can launch a nuclear-tipped warhead and strike a city on the U.S. mainland. Given the choices, isn’t it worth trying for an end of war declaration? After all, Washington, like Pyongyang, has little to lose and might find that it can Get More Back for its efforts.

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