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Persuading Pyongyang: Advice for Trump when it comes to Kim

Two of the most dramatic political figures in modern history -- US President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong ...

Posted: Apr 19, 2018 10:28 AM
Updated: Apr 19, 2018 10:28 AM

Two of the most dramatic political figures in modern history -- US President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un -- seem set to meet face-to-face in the coming weeks.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo's surprise trip to Pyongyang earlier this month shows the two are serious about the encounter and are taking steps to ensure it goes ahead.

But the outcome is unclear: 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 in cooperation?

Trump, who famously quipped that "everything is negotiable," likely sees the talks as transactional within the broader strokes of the "art of the deal."

Different styles

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: 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, a man 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.

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Mutual fear, respect?

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 toward 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 toward 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 and one-upmanship, both Trump and Kim increased their rhetoric to the seemingly very outer limits. This was their way of stress-testing the other's mettle.

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'Ultimate game of chicken'

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 red line would not yield any benefit for either side.

Crossing such a red line would lead to a more than likely mutually-assured destruction (MAD) outcome. Of course, based on iterated war game simulations, the United States would win such a conflict. But the more calibrated question is: "win" at what cost, economically, reputationally and in terms of 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.

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Protection, assurance

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 are 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 hidden forces 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.

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Art of the deal

Negotiation is an "information game." But a negotiation is also a "perception game." It is not just what cards Kim and Trump hold in their hands, it is also how strong they view their cards that will also drive their actions. Strategic thinking precedes strategic action.

Such perception is also a function of unique, cultural dynamics at play.

From Kim's purview, he has always wanted a face-to-face meeting with the very top of the US command chain: the President.

From the perspective of a Stalinist-Confucian lens, a ruling DPRK leader negotiating with a former US leader is fine for certain purposes, as was done involving former President Bill Clinton several years ago. But it is still not a negotiation among equals from Kim's view.

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Importance of face

In the uniquely rigid, top-down, command-and-control cultural structure of North Korea, a face-to-face meeting in the form of direct dialogue between Kim and Trump is only "natural" and appropriate.

Even in the six-party talks, North Korea's representatives were known to appeal for direct dialogue with the US President rather than continue through diplomatic intermediary channels.

To the West, this would seem like a negotiation ploy. To the DPRK, separate from it being a ploy or not, it would make cultural sense to protect its leader from losing face.

Skepticism still pervades some circles, including in Washington, DC and Pyongyang, for the Trump-Kim talks.

They will cite the US-North Korean 1994 Agreed Framework as a failed agreement.

But that deal was brokered through diplomatic representatives, not between the top two leaders of the US and North Korea.

Principals directly involved

With Trump and Kim directly involved in a future deal -- with their reputation and legacies on the line -- the spirit of any agreement, if made, could more likely pivot towards a glass half-full perspective with legal language to match.

This is what negotiation theorists refer to as a deal-making negotiation, as opposed to a dispute-settlement negotiation.

Ultimately, both Trump and Kim could claim "wins" in their historic talks. Risks certainly exist. But as anyone in deal-making will tell you: no risk, no reward.

For a US President who appears focused on media play, anchored by past reality TV productions, the visual optics of him marching unimpeded into the Korean DMZ, Pyongyang, Stockholm or elsewhere, to reshape history is bold, unconventional and tantalizing.

It would make for an epic episode of must-see reality TV -- in what could amount to the most important negotiation the world anticipates this century.

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