From Prisoner Release to Normal Links with North Korea?


Like his father and grandfather, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may place a high value on normal relations with the United States. Like them, he probably wants to wheel and deal at the highest level. Like them, he is ruthless and not above using human hostages to get his way. His health permitting, Kim Jong-un might be seeking to use three American prisoners to bargain for better relations with the United States.

Pyongyang hinted on September 1 that it would release three American prisoners if Washington sent a high-ranking representative to negotiate their freedom. Of course the North Koreans did not explicitly offer to trade their captives for an American visit. Instead, they permitted each prisoner, interviewed separately by Associated Press in the presence of North Korean handlers, to state his belief that the only solution to their situation is for a U.S. representative to come to Pyongyang and make a direct appeal.

The “solution,” if one exists, would probably require a visit by a high-ranking American viewed as unbiased by Pyongyang – someone like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton or Bill Richardson. Washington has repeatedly offered to send its envoy for North Korean human rights, Robert R. King, to the North to appeal for the release of the Americans, but has been rebuffed. Still, Pyongyang is neuralgic about outsiders’ complaints about human rights. The North Koreans want a gesture of respect, not an implicit reprimand.

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North Korean negotiators favor high context diplomacy while Americans tend to operate in a low context focused on the bottom line. What this means was spelled out by an American with vast experience in Korea, Dr. Stephen W. Linton. Having researched Korean history and having translated for Rev. Billy Graham when he met with Kim Il-sung, Linton summed up the North Korean approach to negotiation in a 1995 lecture at Columbia University: “From the North Korean perspective, human relations should never be made conditional on something else. Problems should be portrayed as annoying obstacles to what is most important: friendship between the highest levels of leadership….[Attempts] to meet leadership, resolve sensitive issues, and conclude agreements, all on a three-day trip to Pyongyang, sends the wrong message.” Unlike many Westerners, Koreans do not see impersonal law as the framework for action but rather the personality behind the law. “Proof of interest at the highest level is paramount for giving the negotiating process legitimacy.”

Linton explains that “what appears to Westerners as ‘the rule of law’ can look like the ‘misrule of law’ to North Koreans. They would rather focus on the ‘intention’ rather than the wording of agreements….Legalistic parsing of documents, accepted as a matter of course by Westerners, can look like insincere ‘twisting,” undermining faith in the written word. North Koreans’ search for personality behind law is thus a search for constancy—not just emotion.”

As Linton put it in an e-mail to me in 2009: “More focus on atmospherics and relationships between principals would go a long way” toward improving U.S.-North Korean relations, but only if U.S. officials take these relationships seriously. “Many Koreans note that while Americans are quick to use first names and slap people on the back in a display of friendship, their ‘true intentions’ are often ‘inscrutable’, and they do not seem to take friendship itself that seriously.”

Linton’s analysis helps explain why former-president Jimmy Carter’s could broker a nuclear freeze with Kim Il Sung in 1994. Linton’s thesis also dovetails with the observations of North Korean behavior by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in the late 1990s. It is consonant with Pyongyang’s apparent rapture at former president Clinton’s visit in June 2009. It alerts us to what could be an opportunity in 2014 to end the long stalemate in U.S.-North Korean relations.

The White House should send a high-ranking current or former U.S. official to Pyongyang to secure the release of the three Americans held prisoner there. President Barack Obama’s representative should use the occasion to offer normalized relations between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the state’s official name since 1948). Obama’s representative should assure Pyongyang that the United States will not attack the DPRK. Washington, along with Beijing and Seoul, should commit to working out a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice and modify the Northern Limit Line that spurs many battles at sea between North and South Korea. Pyongyang’s security needs satisfied, the DPRK should agree to freeze its stock of nuclear weapons and materials. As part of a grand bargain, the United States should gradually reduce sanctions and trade barriers imposed on the North. The parties should exchange embassies and begin a many-sided cultural and scientific exchange and resume divided family visits.

Any grand bargain must serve the interests not only of the United States and North Korea, but also of South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. Mutual gain could be accomplished by a few compromises and moves to “enlarge the pie.” All parties – including China, Russia, and Japan – could gain from accelerated economic development and trade across the entire peninsula. Regardless of Korea’s future, Washington should assure Beijing and Moscow that U.S. forces will never be deployed north of Pyongyang. Still, security assurances to North Korea do not require any reduction in America’s readiness to defend South Korea and Japan.

All the actors in Northeast Asia need to think of their shared concerns as interacting within a circle that could shrink or expand. More and more issues, conflicts, and situations could be negotiated. Where does the circle end? How large could the circle become? If the parties focus on their deepest interests, the circle of what is negotiable could expand exponentially. For this to happen, however, all parties must perceive and work for outcomes beneficial to all stake holders.

Walter C. Clemens, Jr. is Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Professor emeritus of political science at Boston University, he wrote Getting to Yes in Korea, with a foreword by Gov. Bill Richardson (2010) and is completing a sequel entitled Can—Should—Must We Negotiate with Evil? North Korea and the World.

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