Published April 22, 2003
WASHINGTON – U.S. negotiators holding talks with the North Koreans this week have reason to be wary of that nation's flair for diplomatic drama.
Decades ago, North Korean officials once sawed the legs of chairs at the bargaining table, so their U.S. negotiating partners would look smaller. More recently, they tried shrinking their own team — one member a day — to unsettle the Americans.
"They have an incredible ability to sort of wait you out, and they can be very stubborn," said Wendy Sherman, President Clinton's adviser on North Korea who has been at the negotiation table in Pyongyang more than once. "In that sense they're tough negotiators."
The United States and North Korea have plodded through decades of mistrust and miscommunication, dating to armistice talks at the end of the Korean War.
The three days of discussions, held in Beijing, to talk about North Korean's suspected nuclear weapons program mark the first time in six months that the two sides have met face to face.
President Bush has taken a hardline approach to North Korea, calling it part of an "axis of evil" with Iran and prewar Iraq. The North Koreans are tough talkers, too.
In May 1999, a North Korean military leader launched talks in Pyongyang by verbally attacking former Defense Secretary William Perry, first by calling him the enemy and then threatening to attack the California city where Perry lives, said Sherman, who was there.
The North Korean said if the United States didn't agree with North Korean demands, "he would bring a sea of fire to Palo Alto, Calif.," said Sherman. She also went with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on her groundbreaking trip to North Korea in 2000.
The North Koreans historically have taken threats and brinkmanship tactics to the limit, said Scott Snyder, an expert on the nation's negotiating style.
During talks in the 1950s, the North Koreans engaged in gamesmanship over protocol — fiddling over everything from the size of the flags placed on the table to the types of chairs used to seat negotiators.
"The North Koreans came in and cut the legs of the chairs down so that they would be taller than their (American) counterparts," he said.
The North Koreans often voice intransigence, aggressiveness and uncompromising attitudes. "Compromise within a North Korean social and political context is not a common habit," said Snyder, now an Asia specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Seoul.
But sometimes when negotiations appear deadlocked, the North Koreans surprise the Americans, he said.
During one round of talks in the 1990s, Americans were puzzled when the North Korean delegation started shrinking.
"Every day, there would be one less person on the North Korean side," Snyder said. "The U.S. side was beginning to wonder whether there would be anybody left to talk to."
North Korea's message was: "We really hate this," but in the end, they made an agreement.
Cultural and political differences often make it difficult for Americans to understand what the North Koreans are really trying to say. An invitation from North Korea to negotiate or concede on a particular issue might be buried behind gruff or aggressive remarks, Snyder said.
Historically, North Korea, as a small nation, has tried to play larger players on the world stage against each other, he said.
"They did that for years in their dealings with the Chinese and the Soviet Union," he said. "They basically worked with the Chinese for a while and tried to make the Soviets jealous and then switched back — all the while asking for benefits, primarily economic."
At the table this time for America is James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asia. The North Korean delegation is led by deputy director Gen. Li Gun from the American affairs bureau of the foreign affairs ministry.
"He's spent a lot of time interacting with Americans so in a way, he's going to be an easier person to communicate with," Snyder said. Still, his opening remarks probably will be harsh.
"He has to demonstrate how effective he's defending the fatherland," Snyder said.
Of course, Americans can pull histrionics, too, when it suits them, or just play hard to reach. Charles Kartman, former U.S. special envoy for Korean affairs, "could sit as long and just as solid-faced as the North Koreans," Sherman said.
"Perhaps someone will walk out at some point — which happens in almost every negotiation," she said. "They'll walk out or we'll walk out. There'll be some drama, but it's all part of the dance."