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The Peninsula

Reflecting on Face-to-Face Diplomacy with Kim Jong-un

Published July 11, 2019
Category: North Korea

By Olga Krasnyak

What do summits mean?

Summit or face-to-face diplomacy with Kim Jong-un was a feature and a shift in Northeast Asian politics in 2018. This trend has continued in 2019 with a recent brief interpersonal encounter with President Donald Trump at DMZ on June 30th. While there is often a certain portion of criticism whether or not face-to-face diplomacy is necessary or transformative in world politics, or it’s just photo-ops for mainstream media and talking points for countless commentators, I suggest not to jump to conclusions right away but to consider face-to-face diplomacy as phenomenon in maintaining inter-state relations.

Inter-state relations are foremost relations between people who represent their states. It means that in order to operate productively, those individuals have to respect each other and treat each other like equals. Otherwise, if, for some reasons, one side is pressured by the other, then there is always will be the desire to make things fair and right for the pressured state.

However, the assumption that we should treat North Korea as equal is the hardest thing to accept when keeping in mind the mostly negative image of an ‘impossible state’ as one of North Korea specialists put it some time ago. This helps to explain the current strategy in dealings with North Korea that includes both maximum pressure and a waiting game until Pyongyang accepts all of the conditions imposed by the international community.

Such strategy is not entirely new in diplomatic history and was well practiced by Soviet diplomats upon third-world countries during the Cold War. The Soviets pressed other countries until they gave up and accepted everything the Soviet Union offered. When, however, diplomatic negotiations stuck – as often happened – the direct involvement of the Soviet leadership could change the direction of diplomatic talks making them more flexible.

On one hand, this top-down approach made diplomacy very much dependent on politics which is natural for an authoritarian state. On the other hand, the top-down approach made interpersonal encounters between state leaders, which was face-to-face diplomacy in fact, groundbreaking and transformative.

As the U.S.-Soviet relations also showed, face-to-face diplomacy between national leaders might be necessary to find immediate solutions to negotiating deadlocks and easing tensions. The summits between Nixon and Brezhnev, and Reagan and Gorbachev proved this.

Importantly, the absence of notable signed agreements should not be ever taken as a failure of summitry because the most useful summit meetings would not produce agreements, but would concentrate on disagreements and ways to reduce them. A ‘no-agreement’ of Trump-Kim summitry is certainly not a failure.

Making it personal

The top-down projection and the extension from interpersonal to the international system is a working strategy when dealing with Kim. To understand what is happening or might happen in inter-state relations, it is reasonable to go into the micro-level of personal dynamic between state leaders.

If state leaders have psychological problems or biases against each other such as suspicion, fear, mistrust, or annoyance, then logically solutions for these problems would be interpersonal communications where they have an opportunity to identify and, perhaps, overcome these problems and biases. Through face-to-face interactions, state leaders can get knowledge about each other, and recognize behavioral indicators and behavioral patterns in their counterparts.

When observing the summitry with Kim, the link between international and interpersonal is considered the most prominent. It means that improvement in relations with Kim might potentially improve relations with North Korea. On Twitter, Trump has repeatedly mentioned his mostly positive personal attitude towards Kim. Moreover, as for now, summit diplomacy with Kim seems the only way to normalize the political climate in the region. North Korea’s sensibility to its security means that keeping open a direct line of diplomatic communication with Kim is a fundamentally important part of a strategy in dealing with the country.

Summits with Kim are yet to be fully evaluated by academics and practitioners of international relations and diplomacy. The outcomes of the summitry will be visible in the years or even decades ahead as for U.S.-Soviet relations. If we assume that Kim is a rational leader which is less likely to seek confrontation and escalation, then an accurate interpretation of his intensions might be the foundation of building better relations with the country.

Are the pre-existing conditions more important?

Summit diplomacy also should be looked at through the pre-existing conditions – the power of states, state behavior, a state’s security dilemma sensibility, political and ideological differences, economic constraints, etc. In this case, increased diplomatic efforts in order to manage inter-state relations is an obvious answer to help to promote and develop international cooperation, shared norms, rules, social institutions, a sense of friendship. Reducing mutual distrust and suspicion, however, might be problematic with countries of different societal and political organizations, as with North Korea.

North Korea’s intensions are modest and primarily focus on international recognition and getting out of international isolation. North Korea faces obstacles in achieving these objectives – an adversarial image of a hostile, backward-oriented, and authoritarian country is not going to disappear any time soon. North Korea’s previous dangerous and provocative behaviors have strongly shaped negative perceptions and stereotypes. But there is always a possibility that situation can be changed at a glance as happened when the Soviet Union collapsed.

For the international community, summit diplomacy is a rational strategy to further shape the geopolitical architecture of Northeast Asia. Kim’s willingness to engage diplomatically with regional and international partners is worth noting as a positive step because interpersonal relations in world politics matter – relations between states are not static but changeable, they can rise and fall.

To comply with the change in inter-state relations, face-to-face diplomacy is first and foremost a mechanism to follow the change in world politics. Kim’s encounters with Xi, Moon, Trump, and Putin are evidence that summitry has a significant potential and may be transformative in world politics, while the world is passionately watching.

Dr. Olga Krasnyak is a researcher in diplomatic studies. She is the author of National Styles in Science, Diplomacy, and Science Diplomacy (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2018). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the White House photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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