Kim Jong Il, the Great Negotiator

Ruler Outfoxed Bush over North Korea's Nuclear Program

December 20, 2011
by Graham Allison

Boston Globe

The Harvard Negotiation Project annually presents a “Great Negotiator Award’’ to an individual who has demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in international negotiations. Recent winners have included George Mitchell (for Ireland), Richard Holbrooke (for Bosnia), and Martti Ahtisaari (for Kosovo and Aceh). Only half in jest, over the past several years, I have urged my colleagues who run the program to give the prize to Kim Jong Il.

According to the stated theory of negotiation as taught at Harvard, negotiating consists of a set of analytic and operational skills for achieving one’s desired objectives in bargaining with a competitor. These negotiating skills are “value-neutral,’’ independent of the worthiness or blame-worthiness of the goals of the negotiator. An individual seeking bad goals can nonetheless be a good negotiator.

My case for awarding the Great Negotiator Award to the “Dear Leader’’ who died this weekend spotlights his success in nuclear negotiations with President George W. Bush over the first eight years of the 21st century. In his hallmark “Axis of Evil’’ speech in January 2002, Bush named North Korea, Iraq, and Iran the “Axis of Evil.’’ Bush charged that “by seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.’’ He drew a deep line in the sand, asserting that the United States would never allow them to acquire nuclear weapons. He prescribed regime change for each country. Months after the speech, the United States attacked Iraq and toppled Saddam.

In the case of North Korea, Bush accused Kim of violating the terms of an agreement reached in 1994 with the Clinton administration to freeze production of plutonium. In response, the United States abrogated its obligations under the agreement. The United States then sought further isolation of the “hermit kingdom’’ by an array of sanctions that made North Korea the most sanctioned nation on earth.

North Korea responded by withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and evicting International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors who were observing the North’s fulfillment of its pledges. It then withdrew six bombs’ worth of plutonium encased in fuel rods that had been stored in warehouses under observation by cameras, extracted the plutonium, and fashioned it into a testable nuclear device. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapons test.

Again to return to the negotiations framework, Bush’s unambiguous objective in dealing with Kim was zero nuclear weapons. Kim’s objective was to build a nuclear arsenal without provoking an attack that threatened his regime. When Bush left office in 2009, the score in this big game was: George W. Bush, 0; Kim Jong Il, 8.

Bush’s announced strategy for preventing North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons was regime change. Kim’s objective was regime survival. In 2009, the Bush regime in Washington changed with Kim still in office grooming his son Kim Jong Un to become his successor. The world is now watching how successful that succession will be.

From the perspective of negotiation theory, the contrast between the tactics employed by Kim and Bush is also instructive. Bush’s tactics began with accusation, then threat, followed by sanctions, then negotiation (typically accompanied by side payments to North Korea from US negotiating partners), then partial agreement in which North Korea pledged to eliminate its nuclear program if given specific immediate benefits. This was followed shortly thereafter by discovery that North Korea was cheating, accusation of North Korea’s cheating, and confrontation. Confrontation and mutual threats were then followed in less than a year by a push of the repeat button in which the cycle moved through the stages again.

Bottom line: In short, Kim out-negotiated Bush. For his mastery of the international negotiations process, and for the demonstration of how the power of one of the weakest states on earth outfoxed one of the most powerful, I still recommend that the committee nominate Kim Jong Il, posthumously, for the 2011 “Great Negotiator Award.’’

Graham Allison is director at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Graham Allison, director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

"When Bush left office in 2009, the score in this big game was: George W. Bush, 0; Kim Jong Il, 8."


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