Books: “Getting to Yes in Korea” by Walter C. Clemens, Jr.



GETTING TO YES IN KOREA, by Walter C. Clemens, Jr. (with a Foreword by Governor Bill Richardson). Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2010. x, 262 pp. paperback. ISBN 978-1-59451-407-4. This book review was written by CanKor Editor-in-Chief Erich Weingartner.


Many papers and books have been published over the years about North Korean negotiating behaviour and how to defend against it: Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy by Chuck Downs (AEI Press, 1999), Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior by Scott Snyder (USIP Press, 1999) and To the Brink and Back: Negotiating with North Korea by Richard Saccone (Hollym, 2003), to name just three.

Walter C. Clemens, Jr., takes a different approach. He examines Washington’s negotiating behaviour for clues about what elements have failed and what might succeed in getting to “yes” with the DPRK. This is done by first taking the reader on a tour of history that illustrates major missed opportunities in negotiations of the past, as well as dramatic and surprising breakthroughs involving the USA and its Cold War adversaries, the USSR and China. The fourth chapter on the fateful decisions that produced the permanent division of Korea should be required reading for anyone intending to become involved with the DPRK, whether students, humanitarians or diplomats.

To drive home the fact that this book is meant to be a practical manual, each chapter in this book begins with the word “how”: How North Korea Got the Bomb; How Kissinger and Zhou Enlai Got to Yes; How to Get to Yes across Cultures; etc. Clemens draws on game theory to illustrate how some negotiation strategies tend to lock in tit-for-tat (TFT) behaviour. This was the case with the “red or dead” psychology of the Cold War, and it is equally apparent in the “security dilemma” that has bedeviled US-DPRK (and indeed ROK-DPRK) relations in recent history.

“If either perceived a threat but did nothing to counter the threat, its security could be jeopardized. But if either acted to bolster its security, this action could provoke the other to countermeasures that heighten insecurity.” (p. 94)

Christopher Hill, Chief US negotiator in the Six-Party Talks under President G.W. Bush, recently claimed that it is pointless to restart the 6PT because “North Korea lied” about its uranium enrichment programme. This is a classical example of the prisoner’s dilemma, according to Clemens, who includes a graphic to show that in such a zero-sum negotiating process there is only one chance in four that both sides will be moderately happy with the outcome of an arms accord. Both have the option of either cooperating (i.e. complying and trusting the other side to comply) or defecting (i.e. cheat on the deal). The ideal is that both cooperate. But if either one or the other defects, it is very bad for the side that cooperates, although very good for the side that defects. And if both defect, it is bad for both. (p. 95)

The mathematical upshot of the prisoner’s dilemma is that if you cannot trust the other side, defection is the smartest choice. Hill may complain that North Korean lies have undermined the Agreed Principles and action plan he had negotiated in 2005 and 2007, but the North Koreans had already seen a decade earlier how the election of a new US President could in one fell swoop undermine the Agreed Framework of 1994. Clearly, counting on simultaneous trust by both sides is simply not an option.

To find a way out of this TFT dilemma, Clemens resurrects an idea of conditional cooperation from the Cold War. Psychologist Charles E. Osgood proposed a “graduated reciprocity in tension-reduction”, or GRIT strategy. Even GRIT can fail, however, as when one or more parties fake their desire for reconciliation or put deal-killing jokers into their negotiation deck. Naïve optimists open themselves to abuse. Clemens therefore draws additional cards from the deck: concepts like the difference between high-context and low-context diplomatic cultures (“Americans tend to be low-context negotiators focused on the bottom line… North Koreans tend to be more concerned with the total context and rely on personal ties built up over time.” p. 204), or the idea that smart power can trump both hard power and chance, unexpected events.

A centre-piece chapter, How to Avoid the Worst and Foster Better Futures, uses scenarios methodology—not to predict the future, but to outline a number of alternative futures. What combinations of circumstances make each scenario more likely? What actions can avoid the worst of these, and what actions improve the likelihood of better ones? The chapter ends with a list of recommendations on how to foster a more secure and prosperous world.

Writing this review when Col. Gaddafi is fighting for his life and rule against homegrown rebels and a NATO-enforced no-fly zone, I find it ironic that Clemens uses the example of the 2003 nuclear deal with Libya to illustrate how Obama should deal with authoritarians. (p. 191ff) However, it does support his contention that gradual, peaceful transformation is the safest course for all concerned, and that “external actors could do little to transform the ruling regime in Pyongyang. Change, if it came, would arise mainly from within.” (p. 218)

Having given so much nourishment to my understanding and whetting my appetite for fresh negotiating recipes, I was somewhat disappointed in the last chapter, which echoes the book’s title with How to Get to Yes in Korea. Instead of a menu of options, however, Clemens offers a listing of challenges faced by all players in the Six-Party game. These come in the form of questions that he does not really answer. He reviews the opinions of a variety of experts (realists, neorealists, liberal idealists, constructivists), and offers complexity theory as a way to cope with uncertainty. Although he clearly hopes that “a negative peace—the absence of war—could then extend gradually into a positive peace,” (p. 219), he all the same advises five of the six parties to agree among themselves on how to manage the region after a DPRK regime collapse.

Just in case they don’t get to “yes”, I suppose.

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