President Donald Trump has his critics; nowhere has this been more apparent than in the evaluation of his efforts to resolve the inherited threat posed by North Korea. As a former government negotiator, however, I find myself viewing his actions from a perspective not often considered.
Earlier in his administration, when the provocative actions of North Korea reached a crisis point, Mr. Trump indicated a willingness to meet with Kim Jong-un. He publicly complimented him a year ago by saying that he must be very intelligent in order to lead a country at such a young age (Mr. Kim is in his mid-30s). Many were aghast that the U.S. president would compliment a bloodthirsty dictator suspected of murdering his own relatives.
I, on the other hand, thought the comment was a good — if obvious — negotiation ploy. I suspected that Mr. Trump and his advisors had pegged Kim Jong-un as having a very strong ego and felt that flattery might help to induce him to enter into meaningful discussions. While this approach did not produce any immediate results, it did no harm, and it may have helped.
Another tactic of negotiators is the carrot and stick approach. To put it bluntly: You make it clear that there will be unhappy consequences if one does not negotiate an agreement and a “gain” if one does reach an agreement. Since any unhappy consequences suffered by North Korea in the past had not been enough to drive their leader to significant negotiation, Mr. Trump and his team went to the United Nations to obtain more meaningful sanctions in December. His critics pointed out that these actions might further alienate North Korea and, further, that there would likely be widespread cheating. There were, of course, those risks. Nonetheless Mr. Trump gained a more potent economic stick.
How did Mr. Trump and his team get United Nations support even from Russia and China? Negotiators know that nothing facilitates agreement more than a common threat. The U.S. convinced the other countries on the Security Council that North Korea posed a nuclear threat that endangered the well-being of all nations.
While waiting for the new sanctions to have the desired effect, there were backdoor discussions going on between then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the North Koreans. Mr. Trump had been talking tougher and opined publicly that he did not know why Mr. Tillerson even bothered to speak with the North Koreans. This was greeted by many in the media as a president undercutting his own team.
I did not see it that way. To me it seemed as if the president was using a “bad cop, good cop” tactic and implying that it would be better for Kim to make a deal with the good cop (the secretary of state) rather than face the bad cop (Mr. Trump). This centuries old negotiation tactic, even though it has reached cliché status, often proves effective.
Despite all that was being done there was no outward softening of North Korean behavior. Mr. Trump escalated references to the use of military force (“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “They will be met with fire and the fury like the world has never seen.”) and pointed out that he had the bigger nuclear button. This led to allegations from his critics that he was a war monger. However, from a negotiation standpoint there is a basic premise that if one is in a power position and does not acknowledge that power, it can make an aggressive opponent even more aggressive.
As the summit draws near, I am cautiously optimistic. There is much to be gained by North Korea if an agreement can be reached. Sanctions can be eased or lifted altogether, and there can be some sort of pledge of non-aggression against the North Korean state. On our side of the ledger, we can reduce or eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons being used by North Korea against the U.S. or our allies. It could be a win-win.
Mr. Trump reportedly is going to ask for a lot. Negotiators know that negotiations most often center around concessions to the initial position; that is why the good negotiators set the bar high. And you rarely, if ever, get more than you asked for.
It looks to me as if Mr. Trump has been sticking to the standard negotiation playbook, although often without the finesse often seen in diplomatic circles.
The stakes are enormous. I will be rooting for his success.
Charles Davis Solloway Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an educator, author and retired contracting officer.