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What it's like to negotiate with North Korea

Cups and a weapon.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo / Axios

President Trump may find himself in a difficult position as soon as he sits down with Kim Jong-un, according to Jim Walsh, who has been in the room for previous talks and says North Korea’s first pitch is often a curveball.

“I’ve been in settings [in which they] set it at the top of the meeting, ‘we’re not going to talk about denuclearization,’" Walsh told Axios. "People on the other side say ‘why the hell are we meeting?’”

Walsh, an international security expert at MIT, says that while negotiators from Iran, for example, tend to talk in circles before reaching their main point, “North Koreans will often lay down a hard line right at the top.”

“I’ve sat in the room with people who were meeting North Koreans for the first time. They’re not used to the North Korean style,” he says.

Setting the stage

Trump is certainly not used to the North Korean style, and a former government official who has negotiated with North Korea says beginning talks at the top level adds a host of challenges:

"This is extremely unusual for the president to be his own special envoy. He's not going to have the time or the inclination to do what the special envoy" would do to set the stage for talks.

The official said even before Trump, negotiations with North Koreans had been driven by the personalities in the room. Now, they’ll be dependent on two big personalities, in Trump and Kim.

What it’s like in the room

Walsh says in his experience, conversations with the North Koreans are nothing like the bombastic statements that come out of North Korean state media.

  • “The conversation is quite normal, especially if the people already know each other,” he says. While the talks can sometimes be frustrating for both sides, “as any conversation between countries with bad relations might be,” the tone “is not tense or hot or cold.”
  • Walsh says the North Koreans “generally do not confer with each other before responding, nor are there regular long pauses.”
  • “The people doing these are generally pros and understand that there are constraints, especially on the North Korean side.”

The Trump factor

These talks, assuming they go ahead, will be unlike any that came before them — and skipping the lower echelons makes things less predictable:

  • Trump and Kim Jong-un will likely speak in broad strokes, without a lot of detailed conditions, the former official said.
  • Trump doesn’t have a full roster of experts on his side, given key vacancies, and has been known to make snap decisions when it comes to foreign policy.
  • Normally, North Korean officials have to stick to strict instructions set out before negotiations. “Officials down the food chain have to be very careful about what they say because they could get shot," Walsh says. Kim, however, doesn’t have a congress or an adversarial press to answer to, or elections to worry about.
Quote"If he flips, everything flips, that’s a little bit of wild card."
— Jim Walsh

What to expect

  • It’s not in [the North Koreans'] interest for the summit to crash and burn. I don’t think they’re going to show up just to shut it down,” Walsh says.
  • But if things do turn sour, he says, “that very much increases the likelihood that the two countries will find themselves on a fast track to some sort of military conflict.”

Go deeper: North Korea is a black hole for U.S. intel and how past talks have failed.

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