Kim Jong Un and the Art of the Asian Deal


Two important qualities of East Asian negotiations elude the Western foreign-policy establishment: A relationship is more important than an agreement, and a deal is a moving object.

The conventional wisdom has it that President


summit with

Kim Jong Un

was extraordinary and naive. Presidential summits are always preprogrammed, down to the devilish details and await only the signature on a fait accompli. This simplistic historical account of presidential summitry ignores the sociology of the meeting, which in East Asian cultures emphasizes the importance of building a relationship before any agreement can be reached. The Singapore meeting showed an appreciation of the cultural foundations of Korean rapprochement—a necessary start to a long-term diplomatic process that could yield major dividends for the U.S.

Mr. Trump’s postsummit statements—such as “Kim loves his people”—immediately caused an outcry in the West, given the brutality of the North Korean regime. But in the context of an East Asian negotiation, where building a personal relationship is paramount, such statements make sense. So too does the “enormous” concession that Mr. Trump made in suspending the biannual U.S.-South Korean war games.


and Seoul continue to cooperate closely but less ostentatiously. The “concession” was a stage-setter, a down payment within the relationship, not a Western-style bargaining move.

Personal relationships are a dimension of any negotiation. But in East Asian diplomacy they take on a new level of importance, pre-empting and undergirding any substantive exchange. The Singapore meeting was not merely an occasion for Mr. Trump to display his personal “chemistry.” It was the start of a long-term exchange of hugs, handshakes and repetitious homilies—along with some frank insights.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Trump does not drink, because a classical Korean deal-making relationship would include some heavy drinking sessions, where the soul is bared but lasting promises are not involved. It would behoove the press, pundits and political class to understand the culturally defined process into which the U.S. president has entered.

The other aspect of East Asian negotiations, more frustrating to Westerners, is the transitory nature of the deal. Any businessman working in the region will testify to this. Negotiation-training sessions for prospective contractors in East Asia feature stories of Americans who arrive in the region with a proposal and a plane ticket, eager to seal the mutually advantageous deal. But whatever is finally signed amounts only to a temporary pause in continuing negotiations. This offends the Western notion of pacta sunt servanda—agreements must be kept—and leads to impressions of duplicity, double-dealing and backtracking.

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By Western standards, it is. Such behavior is particularly enervating when the West aims to bring new countries into permanent and universal—that is, Western-style—guarantees of security and systems of relations. But in diplomatic initiatives, particularly with new and unconventional actors, the West must be aware of regional differences in norms.

This is not to say the transient view of negotiations is preferable. Continuing interaction will aim to integrate North Korea into the Western system of firm, stable agreements—for which Mr. Trump is admittedly not a role model. As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State

Christopher Hill

said amid the Six-Party Talks during the George W. Bush administration: “What we are trying to do is to show North Korea that there is a better way to achieve security than excessive armament, and that is to join the security arrangements of the international community.”

How can one establish a trustworthy and lasting relationship when the agreements along the way are not set in stone? In East Asian culture there is no contradiction. To be sure, the U.S. must continue to emphasize the need for consistent and committed behavior from North Korea. But we must enter into negotiations understanding where the other side is coming from, rather than judging by the exacting standards of where we want them to go.

Mr. Zartman is a professor emeritus of international organization and conflict resolution at Johns Hopkins University.

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