Famously, Donald Rumsfeld once said there are “known knowns, and then there are known unknowns”. With the current North Korea situation, this expression seems apt. There are things that we appear to know, for example the actual planned events, the negotiations which are moving dramatically forward, going from vague promises to actual dates. There are even known knowns about negotiating positions – so we know that the US does not wish to remove its troops from the Peninsula without a dramatic reduction in the threat to its ally the ROK. There are even unknown known knowns, like the fact that North Korea, which normally demands the reduction of US troops from the Peninsula has now withdrawn that demand. No one can answer why? Why has North Korea become suddenly so pliant and biddable in the run-up to the negotiations table?
To date, it has offered a freeze – pocketed gratefully by the US and ROK – of its missile tests and nuclear tests. It has also accepted the annual US-ROK Foal Eagle Exercise demurely, without kicking up a fuss in the international media as it usually does. (In response, both the US and ROK have played down the exercise, even declining international offers to take part in the exercise). North Korea has also accepted that it must reach a peace deal with South Korea before it can get one with the United States. Those who have followed this issue for a few years will know that North Korean delegations regularly visited Western states, pleading for a peace deal, which the Americans seemed to rebuff. What they almost never said was that they only wanted a peace deal with the Americans and did not want one with South Korea – lackey to the imperialist Americans, to use their own words.
So we know that North Korea is wilfully becoming “soft” in its negotiating position, but what we don’t understand is – why? Scott Snyder’s brilliant 1999 work, Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior revealed in North Korea’s diplomatic circle an extremely savvy sense of what levers North Korea could pull and still get away with in its negotiating approach. Often, he stated, they’d enter a meeting with the most extreme demands, intending to put their adversaries on the back foot, while noting reactions and seeing how the opposing team countered. In many ways, it was an extreme approach that nearly no sane business would use, either in contracts or in salary negotiations. But in North Korea’s case, they knew that as long as the US and South Korea wanted denuclearization enough, they’d remain at the table. Snyder also revealed in his book, a rigid internal approach so that every concession North Korea gave, was treated as if it were exacting the greatest possible sacrifice. It was hammy, but it worked. Seoul and Washington put up with it.
In negotiating with Donald Trump, the North Koreans have completely changed their playbook. Now, one might suppose that this is because of a few things that Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-in have done right. For example, Trump was willing to put real economic pressure on China, sanctioning the Chinese bank Dandong to Beijing’s surprise in November 2017. This combined with Beijing’s newfound enthusiasm for upholding sanctions began to bite hard on North Korea’s economic activity. Washington also put pressure on Beijing in other ways. The quiet but steady deployment of US forces to the region, including extra troops and a carrier fleet in August and September, the local deployment of B-52s and B-1 nuclear-capable bombers throughout December 2017 and January 2018 could not be missed by Beijing. Seeing such long-term deployments building up, with more and more forces amassing in the region, there’s little doubt that China was beginning to take the situation more seriously than it had previously. The non-appointment of Dr Victor Cha, one of Washington’s top minds on North Korea because of his apparent aversion to a “bloody nose” strike must have sent a clear signal.
That’s certainly one possible interpretation of events, but there’s another that might need a reckoning and that is the real unknown unknown. That is to what extent China’s transformation into one of the world’s first capitalist-authoritarian great powers has affected North Korea’s formerly-truculent leader. Those familiar with China-DPRK relations will no doubt be familiar with the historical contempt that Pyongyang has traditionally held for China and Russia after they abandoned Marxist economic principles in the 1990s. In many ways, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il felt that he was the carrier of the light, the last pure Marxist state with a special Korean nature. However, like all of us, Kim Jong-un has seen China’s leader Xi get rid of term appointments – the last dramatic reveal in what has seemed to be a slow-moving magic trick. Would China liberalize or wouldn’t it? For the world as for North Korea, the answer is that it won’t. A fellow communist party has successfully hijacked capitalism in order to enrich itself and is now becoming increasingly capable of reuniting with its own long-lost province of Taiwan. Perhaps, Kim is ready to bargain away the nuclear weapons because he sees for the first time the genius in what China’s communist leaders have accomplished.
As always, known knows are difficult to agree upon. Known unknowns are impossible to discern much less debate. But in the riddle and enigma that is North Korea, it is important to constantly be checking potential moves on the three-dimensional chessboard and ensuring that the moves that you see being moved are being moved for the reasons you believe they are being moved. In this, we are dependent on the biggest riddle of them all; the motivation of the political actor.