It wasn’t that long ago that everything looked disconcertingly positive as between North Korea, South Korea and the United States of America. A summit meeting at the highest level between Washington and Pyongyang was planned.
The cynical armchair pundits assured us that it wouldn’t last. And (perhaps) they were right:
“If the US is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK/US summit,” said Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan.
Did a reference to the ‘Libya model’ by President Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton rattle Pyongyang? Insofar as Bolton was referring to the arrangements under which Libya dismantled its WMD programmes with Western support, he was making practical sense. But, perhaps, the subsequent grisly fate of Colonel Gaddafi several years later was also in the minds of North Korea’s leaders pondering what that Libya example told them about the Americans and their ‘real’ intentions.
Now President Trump has gone out of his way to try to dispel such negative thoughts:
“The Libyan model isn't a model that we have at all when we're thinking of North Korea ... the Libyan model that was mentioned was a much different deal. This with Kim Jong Un would be something where he'd be there. He'd be in his country. He'd be running his country. His country would be very rich".
The armchair pundits jeer both at such language and the wider policy context: “That’s what Gaddafi got until the West bombed him! And look at how America has just left the vital Iran nuclear deal, on some sort of mad whim! How can North Korea trust Washington now?”
That raises an interesting and important question. What’s the role of trust in high-level diplomacy?
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It might seem paradoxical, but often progress is made because there is almost no trust between two countries. It’s because they and their leaders don’t trust each other that they agree to talk to pin down some specific items of agreement where both sides have an interest in something different happening.
In such a situation, the parties decide to trust the process rather than trust each other. Indeed, the whole point of the process is to manage the obvious lack of trust on an agreed, principled basis. Life has to go on.
Non-diplomats struggle to grasp this. They see diplomats spending days or weeks or months or years haggling over what look like trivial issues of ‘form’ (flags, nameplates, the shape and size of the negotiation table, the size of delegations, the punctuation in the final protocol and so on) rather than the real issues at stake.
But these protocol-type issues are in fact vital if all concerned are to feel that the process is honest and respectful: it’s a process they can trust, aiming at a result they can accept. Any such result involving disarmament typically contains provisions for all sides being sure (enough) that commitments made are in fact being implemented: that’s another way of using clever process to manage low levels of mutual trust.
Another way of dealing with lack of trust is studied ambiguity. Take this North Korea case. The Americans want North Korea’s ‘denuclearisation’, i.e. North Korea renouncing its nuclear weapons programmes and demolishing all the facilities that might advance them. The North Koreans by contrast won’t accept ‘unilateral nuclear abandonment’ and refuse to be ‘forced into a corner’.
This language gives both sides plenty of diplomatic and operational wiggle-room if they want it. Thus a strategic deal might involve a mutually verifiable step-by-step scaling back of all nuclear weapons and research in and around the Korean peninsula; the USA drawing down its conventional forces to an agreed timetable; and a phased normalisation of relations between North and South. Plus lots of foreign investment in North Korea. In other words, North Korea’s ‘denuclearisation’ is not an event but a process based on step-by-step success.
The point in all this is simple. After a long history of war and rivalry, it sometimes takes a long time (maybe generations) to build strategic trust between states and their peoples (see Serbs and Albanians; Greeks and Turks; French and Germans; Arabs and Israelis). The only way to trudge through those long years is to get used to doing positive things together. Small deals implemented together will create the mutual confidence to move on to rather bigger deals.
Relations between leaders can accelerate things. Yet that is not enough, or it may be shallow. Remember how back in 2001 President G W Bush described his first meeting with President Putin:
"I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue … I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
880 weeks later relations between Washington and Moscow are in miserable shape.
Let’s stay optimistic and assume that the Singapore summit in June between President Trump and Kim Jong-un takes place. They too will look each other in the eye. Will they start to trust each other enough not to collapse any deal as and when things go wrong?
Charles Crawford won Cicero Awards for speechwriting in 2016 and 2017. He writes at www.charlescrawford.biz
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