Much has been written since U.S. President Donald Trump surprisingly announced on March 8 that he was willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In general, even critics of the president have noted that dialogue is better than insults or threats of war. There is a sense of expectation that the president is now getting his opportunity to show, in fact, whether he truly can introduce a paradigm shift in the way international relations operate and apply his oft-stated ability to close a deal to address a problem that has vexed his predecessors since the end of the Cold War.
The president appears intent on forging his own path on this issue, challenging traditional norms of diplomacy and negotiation. However, diplomatic negotiation is composed of many specific elements, with most practitioners emphasizing two fundamental measures. First, both sides (or all sides, as the case may be) in a negotiation must agree to the terms of the discussions; that is, they must agree exactly about what they're talking about. Should they come to terms, those terms have to mean the same thing to all involved. There can be no gray areas.
Second, the details of implementation must be as clear as possible. That is, even if all details have not been spelled out, the post-agreement implementation process has been imagined, discussed and confirmed so there exists a feasible chance of sustaining whatever the agreement might be.
Do both sides agree, for example, on what we mean by "denuclearization"? Do we envision and accept what kinds of changes must take place, over time, on the Korean Peninsula to make any agreement stick? Do negotiations encompass the prospect of nuclear nonproliferation versus missile reduction?
It helps to have subject matter experts who anticipate what direction talks may take and thus make the plausible sustainability of any future agreement more likely.
Usually, the way in which these two elements of diplomatic negotiations develop is through preparatory talks. For example, preparatory talks for the eventual 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as it's formally known) began as early as 2011. These talks can be conducted between representatives of the primary negotiators, fully deputized to define terms and discuss actions to be taken. In some cases, these talks can also have a Track 2 element, or "back channel diplomacy," where informal dialogues help complement official, government-to-government engagement. These dialogues may be more speculative and where creative ideas are suggested and the principals in the discussion are able to walk away from them, if need be. The point is that in all such scenarios it helps to have subject matter experts — whether on the team of the principal or working in the interest of the negotiations — who anticipate what direction talks may take and thus make the plausible sustainability of any future agreement more likely.
Complications and Gaps
To complicate matters, any negotiation with North Korea very likely will be multilateral — China, South Korea, Japan and Russia will want to be involved and they all have competing objectives. The North Korea-South Korea summit, slated for late April, or Kim Jong Un's recent visit to Beijing underscores this. If you were Japan, would you remain passive? There are even reports that North Korea is considering a return to the six-party talks it abandoned a decade ago.
This is also where the U.S. State Department has a significant role to play and, as such, the current staffing gaps are worrisome. As others have pointed out, the United States has no ambassador in Seoul. The State Department has no confirmed assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific. The department's experienced negotiator for the Korean Peninsula left his job and has not been replaced. The undersecretary for political affairs (usually the State Department's senior career diplomat) is retiring pending a replacement. Many other senior diplomats have left the U.S. Foreign Service (or have been shown the door) in the past year, depleting the ranks of those who have extensive background in negotiation and in the specific substance of Korea, the nuclear issue and past talks with North Korea's leadership.
Also, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is now gone. It may be that the president dismissed him so he could put a new team into place, under Secretary-designate Mike Pompeo, for the talks with Kim Jong Un. If reports are accurate about the summit possibly taking place in May, Pompeo and his team will need to move very quickly.
Without the support of a team of diplomats who know the countries involved, the issues and the personalities with whom the president will engage, it's more than likely that key details may be overlooked. That may be attractive to some who would emphasize boldness and push naysayers to the side. Indeed, in the short run, it can make the prospect of an agreement more likely, since the formulation of any problem can be quite simple if one sufficiently ignores the background, details and minutiae of that problem.
If the goal is to reach an agreement — any agreement — then such an approach may just work. But if the goal is negotiating a sustained peace in northeast Asia, contributing to global nonproliferation and easing the prospect of a catastrophic war that is all too possible, then we must hope that the foundation for the talks will be prepared by a team of sober and experienced experts, backed by careful consideration of the past and the future, of cultural differences and personalities, and of the interests not only of the United States but of others in the region.