[KS] KSR 2007-03:_Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior_, by Scott Snyder

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Sun Jan 7 22:27:04 EST 2007

[Note from the editor: Although Scott Snyder's book initially appeared quite a while ago, personal circumstances prevented the first reviewer from completing a contribution, and the book was eventually returned to KSR. Given the continuing importance of the volume, we sought another reviewer, whose discussion follows.]

Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior, by Scott Snyder. Washington: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1999. 213 pp. ISBN 1-8783-7995-X (hardcover); ISBN 1-8783-7994-1 (paper). 

Reviewed by Patrick McEachern
Louisiana State University
pmceac1 at lsu.edu


All of the major powers in Northeast Asia have recognized the importance of resolving the “North Korea question” and the difficulty of reaching accommodation with the closed state. Whether seeking changed behavior on the nuclear issue, missile development and proliferation, abductees, economic cooperation and internal reform, or human rights and humanitarian missions, South Korea, China, Japan, the United States, and Russia have dedicated some of their best diplomats to engage Pyongyang with varying degrees of success. Each has stressed diplomacy and indicated that military action is not a real option. The stalled Six Party Talks demonstrate the need to revisit the question of how to most effectively negotiate with Pyongyang. Snyder’s book reminds policymakers of recent history’s lessons and how to productively engage Pyongyang.

It should come as no surprise that one of the most astute and balanced observers of peninsular affairs, Scott Snyder, brings us a concise guide to negotiators and an accessible, short history of recent negotiations with North Korea. First appearing in 1999, Negotiating on the Edge sought to inform primarily contemporary U.S. policymakers about the then most recent negotiating history with North Korea. Snyder takes 1992 - 1997 as his time frame, covering early post-Cold War negotiations. He acknowledges the limitations of explaining history as it unfolds and probably did not envision the book having a long shelf life. However, Snyder’s observation of key constants in North Korean negotiating behavior and his lucid style make the book a practical tool for anyone new to the subject or seeking to understand current events in context. 

Snyder’s book is divided into roughly three parts. First, he outlines briefly the North Korean world view that he sees as relevant to negotiations. Second, he draws upon a host of interviews with named U.S., South Korean, Japanese, and KEDO officials as well as unnamed North Korean officials to elicit similarities and differences between North Korea’s negotiations with the United States and other actors. He concludes by giving potential negotiators tips to increase their effectiveness and assesses future diplomatic possibilities. 

The first chapter evaluates the North Korean context and is ostensibly intended for an audience that may not have extensive experience in peninsular affairs. Snyder selects attributes of the North Korean system that he deems most relevant to actual negotiating strategy and tactics. He argues that Kim Il Sung’s partisan guerilla tactics to persevere against the Japanese have morphed into DPRK negotiating behavior; historical experience helps explain why its negotiators can be pragmatic in crafting alliances and yet use unconventional tactics. Beyond history, Snyder argues that culture matters - a point clear to area specialists but one not necessarily given credence by international relations scholars and students or policymakers. 

Pyongyang not only creates a crisis atmosphere in order to influence the ebb and flow of negotiations and decides on a level of “toughness” based on its interlocutors’ positions, but it must deal with internal constraints (7-8). International relations scholars and policymakers alike often treat other states as rational unitary actors - a black box of a government that produces the state’s position. In dealings with North Korea, this assumption is even more prevalent; if Kim acts free of internal constraint, then the simplicity of the state actor approach takes on greater attractiveness. Snyder dispels this myth by highlighting important elements of North Korean society that shape its external policy. 

Kim Il Sung’s guerilla legacy, the cult of personality, and “neo-Confucian” filial piety give North Korea’s longstanding foreign policy stances greater inertia (17 - 28). Partially limited by strategy and tactics inherited from his father, Kim Jong Il’s negotiators have displayed certain constants that can be studied and understood (25-28). For example, Juche thought stresses autonomy from the Chinese tributary relationship and great powers dependence. Juche advances a stubborn nationalism that has been spread through society via official media and propaganda. Snyder exemplifies this point by noting how history and culture almost demand that Pyongyang view international aid as an entitlement rather than a gift to be grateful for. This situation creates tension, especially with western sources of aid (34 - 37).

Snyder continues by noting the practical relevance of these historical and cultural factors for negotiators and the utility of empathy. First, negotiators should avoid the most minor insults to Kim Il Sung. These do not advance substantive interests and only produce unnecessary hurdles to talks (40 - 41). Second, all negotiators must carefully explain their interlocutors’ demands to their own government. North Korean negotiators return to Pyongyang to present foreign positions to a highly skeptical audience. Pyongyang is constrained by its history and culture, propaganda, suspicion of the outside world, and the reality of the international environment. Talks that allow Pyongyang’s diplomats to return home with a persuasive appeal are more likely to advance mutual interests (45 - 47). Finally, given the legacy of guerilla tactics and unease about dealing with the outside world, aggressive and hostile North Korean diplomatic overtures are the norm and should not be misconstrued as indicating lack of resolve to negotiate (54 - 55). 

The book's most valuable section is its middle chapters, where the author draws upon extensive interviews with government officials. The author does an excellent job describing the flow of negotiations, documenting North Korean negotiating tactics, and refuting the view that the North Korea case lacks all critical data necessary for serious study. He compares the U.S.-DPRK experience with inter-Korean negotiations, highlighting a distinctly Korean bargaining behavior and tactics found on both sides of the DMZ. Pyongyang trained a small group of meticulous Americanists who wear down interlocutors. They probe, set out maximal conditions at the outset, and only begrudgingly come to compromises (50 - 54). Stakes are even higher for the small state and the negotiators themselves, and their reputation for hard negotiating is well earned. Snyder further notes that North Korean media provide a critical outlet for domestic and international communication. North Korea is not an information black hole, messages to society matter, and internal political dynamics can be seen and studied (47 - 50).

North Koreans pay close attention to the political atmosphere surrounding negotiations. If this atmosphere is not conducive to gains, then Pyongyang is content to wait until conditions improve. While its democratic counterparts have limited periods of time in power, Pyongyang does not feel this same urgency. North Koreans see it as imperative to take time to develop relationships and gradually progress (66 - 68). Relationship building does not prevent brinkmanship and hostility; neither side is looking for friends, rather acceptable partners. Nevertheless, Snyder recognizes that internal crisis, such as the late 1990s famine, may enhance a sense of urgency in Pyongyang to reach accommodation; however, he argues such crises also risk heightened tensions and military miscalculation on the peninsula (68 -76). 

Inter-Korean negotiations differ from U.S.-DPRK negotiations in several ways. Former US Ambassador Robert Gallucci reportedly quipped to a South Korean that to understand North Korean negotiating strategy and tactics, they only needed to “look in the mirror” (97). Snyder argues that both Koreas attempt to manipulate the pace of negotiations by escalating tensions, agree on a need to redefine a cooperative relationship, and use brinkmanship to foster unity internally. Consequently, inter-Korean negotiations are characterized by one-upmanship, crisis-inducing behavior, and a zero-sum game (98). Protocol issues can take on a significance of their own and impact the progress of talks. Koreans see the one-upmanship that may seem petty to outside observers as defining the framework and tone of talks. Both sides try to be tougher than the other, creating an outside impression of machismo. When the United States enters the scene, both sides renew concerns of negotiating from a position of weakness. Perceptions of disadvantage can taint each side’s commitment to reaching or honoring agreements (106 - 115). 

Finally, Snyder describes the DPRK-KEDO negotiations, bringing to light some of the issues in these negotiations as well as introducing unique process challenges and opportunities of multilateral negotiations. Former US Ambassador Stephen Bosworth’s task of coordinating KEDO’s international staff ran into multiple difficulties, such as dealing with Pyongyang’s refusal to allow his South Korean and Japanese deputies to travel with him to visit the proposed Light Water Reactor site (120). Each national government involved had its own priorities and reflected them through the loosely institutionalized KEDO structure. The United States focused on regional stability and nuclear proliferation. Japan focused on regional stability but debated the amount of money it would provide. Meanwhile, South Korea debated the competing demands of squeezing or accommodating Pyongyang (121). 

Supply contract negotiations dragged out as staff took varying interpretations of the North’s statements and actions based upon their state’s preconceived outlooks, and burden-sharing issues undermined KEDO’s cohesion (122-25). Nevertheless, Pyongyang had greater incentive to make a deal. With the devastating floods in 1995 and the tangible threat of the loss of heavy fuel oil shipments, North Korea finally agreed to unprecedented extraterritoriality and telecommunications and transportation access by KEDO subcontractors and staff (128). North Korea ironically responded more flexibly to the multilateral interlocutors, apparently recognizing the added constraints on its actions and potential for rewards. Furthermore, the technical nature of negotiations and lack of historical baggage associated with the KEDO-DPRK relationship removed additional stumbling blocks that could undermine progress (129-31). 

This book’s account of the three most important negotiating tracks in the 1990s gives it continuing value for use in any course on contemporary peninsular affairs. Since the book draws on history from 1992 - 1997, it requires supplementary articles to bring students up to date. The shelf life of the future diplomacy section has decidedly expired, but the analysis of the negotiation’s process are as valid today as they were when this book was written. Snyder distills the importance of recent history for policymakers, scholars, and students and provides intriguing questions for debate in government or the classroom. Snyder’s general advice and context have proven remarkably accurate in the unfolding of the latest negotiations. While it is time for an updated and revised second edition, the book should be read for insight into the constant North Korean negotiating behavior and tactics. This guide to North Korean negotiating tactics and process is Negotiating on the Edge’s most important contribution, and on that mark, the book still warrants attention. 

McEacherm, Patrick 2007
Review of Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior, by Scott Snyder (1999) 
Korean Studies Review 2007, no. 3
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr07-03.htm

More information about the Koreanstudies mailing list