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Tuesday 20th March 2018

North Korea and President Trump: Negotiating or Not?


Charles Crawford

Fri, 25 May 2018 16:37 GMT

The USA's historic Nobel Peace Prize opportunity summit meeting with North Korea has been called off by President Trump.

The letter from President Trump to North Korea's Chairman Kim Jong Un (sic) is right up there in the list of all-time remarkable diplomatic communications. One of the (many) ways President Trump differs from President Obama is his use of big, bold, almost crassly sentimental adjectives, such as beautiful and wonderful. Both feature in this letter.  

I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only that dialogue that matters ...

I want to thank you for the release of the hostages who are now home with their families. That was a beautiful gesture and was very much appreciated ...

That tone is offset by other strikingly strong language.

Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting ...

You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.

The letter also has idiosyncratic 'personal' touches that normally might not be included in the published version of a top-level message such as this, perhaps being expressed instead in the covering message.

If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write ...

In short, this letter has a strange power. President Trump is talking publicly and bluntly to Chairman Kim Jong-un in a way that is by normal diplomatic standards embarrassingly direct, yet also oddly respectful because it is so direct and public.

 Is President Trump calling off the summit in this way showing strength or weakness?

"Weakness!" hoot the armchair pundits. "No, far worse than weakness – sheer incompetence! North Koreans are tough and tricky. It was obvious from the start that Trump had no idea what he's doing!"

Not implausible. Although one wonders what China and Russia are up to behind the scenes in Pyongyang. Does a Trump Triumph in June suit them for their own wider reasons? Maybe not. If not, what might they do to make sure it doesn't happen, except on terms they're ready to accept?

There is nonetheless another way to look at it. Namely that the US/North Korea negotiation continues even though President Trump has called off the summit. 

Here President Trump wisely has decided not to waste time and credibility amidst media frenzies preparing for a Summit that might not work but he has left the door wide open for another go as and when the 'mood' is right.

People often think that a 'successful' diplomatic negotiation proceeds steadily and ends in an agreement. But when (as in a case like this) the sides' interests/needs are for now incompatible and things don't 'fit', the negotiation doesn't stop. It just moves from a formal exchange across a table into other measures (sanctions, pressure, inducements and so on).

Remember the USA peace talks with North Vietnam in the early 1970s? As the diplomatic meetings continued in Paris, the United States was bombing North Vietnam. That bombing was the negotiation. Would the USA do whatever it took to win? No. So in due course North Vietnam won.

See also the USA and Iran. By withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and dropping more than broad hints that the USA under new management might favour 'regime change' in Tehran, Washington opens a new phase of negotiation that brings into play Iran's mounting domestic problems. 

In other words, in diplomacy the actual negotiation is the underlying trial of strength or willpower or stamina. Face-to-face negotiation is just one way to express it. But for that format to work and edge things forward, the leaders concerned need to feel confident in each other's basic commitment to trying to make the process proceed.

In this Trump letter to Kim Jong-un there is an implicit important message that the top North Korea leadership will ponder:

Look. This is serious business. I don't plan to humiliate you. But please - don't play games and threaten to humiliate me. I'm ready to sit down to talk. Let me know when you are too.

Charles Crawford won Cicero Awards for speechwriting in 2016 and 2017. He writes at 

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.

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