At the end of the day, bullies—often driven into tormenting others because of their own insecurities—want to feel respected. Both bullies and the bullied struggle with the consequences of feeling left out—a natural human sentiment we all can relate to.
For North Korean leader Kim Jung-Un, such perceived alienation (and disrespect) represents a major attack against the identity of his famine-ridden, totalitarian state. However, unlike other similarly insecure courtyard bullies, Jung-Un’s nuclear arsenal and volatile nature make him not one to risk triggering.
Meanwhile, the United States and its allies struggle to decide upon a strategy towards North Korea, whose recent nuclear testing has left South Korea, Japan, Guam, and others seriously shivering in their boots. Kim Jung-Un’s closest allies, United Nations Security Council veto-holders China and Russia, have previously expressed an unwillingness to increase oil sanctions against North Korea, despite U.S. efforts to accomplish just that.
A prevalent theory in alternative dispute resolution states that understanding the goals of the other parties to a negotiation is only one component of successful conflict resolution. The key to mitigating conflict is figuring out how to capitalize on interests. For example, while two people may fight for an orange, Person A may only need the orange peel whereas Person B only needs the orange to squeeze out its juices. Rather than cutting the orange in half, a better strategy is to discuss interests so both Person A and Person B maximize gains.
Similarly, the United States and its allies must understand North Korea’s underlying interests in order to pursue a policy of relentless nuclear de-escalation: sovereignty and revenge against the ‘merciless’ Americans who fought them during the Korean War.
A 1963 treaty signed by over one hundred countries banned atmospheric nuclear weapon tests. Thus far and in line with the treaty, North Korea, along with other nations developing nuclear arms, has stuck with testing nuclear weapons separately from ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, according to one director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among others, increasingly hostile messaging from North Korea suggests the republic is eager to prove itself. To Jung-Un, an atmospheric test may seem like just the way to do it.
To give him credit, President Donald Trump has not remained silent on the topic of North Korea’s latest nuclear testing. In a string of tweets sent after the North Korean’s deployed their largest test to date, Trump explained that South Korea’s appeasement strategy will not succeed. In response to a reporter’s question “will you attack North Korea?,” Trump answered “we’ll see,” suggesting once again a propensity towards war.
U.S. foreign policy towards North Korea must be one of feigned respect. Offering Kim Jung-Un greater respect is a bargaining chip the U.S. and its allies can leverage when re-attempting de-escalation talks. After all, in August, North Korea announced they will not renegotiate their nuclear weapons program until the U.S. ends its “hostile policy and nuclear threat.” As schoolyard bullies easily are, North Korea is offended by current U.S. strategy towards them. If they are led to feel respected, however, outcomes may change.
One method to offer North Korea greater respect (importantly, the country has kept its United Nations membership despite its crimes against humanity) is to extend Kim Jung-Un an invitation to foreign gatherings. Another method is to better communication. In April, U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry explained that the North Koreans are seriously interested in normalizing diplomatic ties with the U.S.
Formalized streams of communication between the two nuclear powers can facilitate easier dialogue that does not require triangulation through the United Nations, as is the current predicament. Though the normalization of relations is unlikely given recent North Korean aggression and missile tests, opening formalized direct and indirect negotiation channels presents an opportunity to offer North Korea more respect—perhaps enough to prompt de-escalation.
Ultimately, if North Korea isn’t offered a seat at the grown up’s table, we will easily pass a threshold of no-return whereby North Korea is unwilling to negotiate. That day, the existence of the grown up’s table itself will be at the discretion of North Korea’s almighty leader.
There is no good U.S. strategy towards North Korea—only calculated moves based on opportunity cost. Legitimacy as a bargaining chip during de-escalation talks is one such move.
Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity junior. Her column, "in formation," runs on alternate Mondays.
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Sabriyya Pate is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.