It is plain to see that the sanction line vis a vis North Korea has not worked. It did not work vis a vis Kim Jong-il, and since Kim Jong-un came to power, he has steadily become more feisty. The nuclear arms programme has continued advancing, and it is highly unlikely that further sanctions will bring a stop to it.
Sanctions are in general a problematic means of influence, since they invariably spur an anti reaction: We do not want others to decide what we should do. The reactance theory, discussed and tested in social psychology, suggests that we typically respond with an anti reaction if our freedom to decide is under attack. When exposed to sanctions, we react with discomfort, and a way to get out of this discomfort is to do the opposite of what the sanctions are meant to achieve.
This is what North Korea has been doing for the longest time.
One might ask if Trump’s threats made Kim Jong-un refrain from a nuclear test celebration of the 85th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army. Could it be that Trump’s unpredictability made Kim hesitate?
We shall never know. In any case, there is no reason whatsoever to expect that the North’s nuclear arms programme will be shelved. What more, the nuclear arms have been spread and are mobile. Meaning the US’ possibilities of taking them out with triggering a massive attack (at least ) on South Korea, have passed.
So, what is the US left with?
Hope has been attached to China’s role. Can China make the North change its attitude? Recent restrictions on coal import have not brought about any visible change. And again, with pressure there is always the reactance element. So China is no safe card.
What option is left for the US?
Yes, exactly, direct diplomacy.
Diplomacy of the kind Trump, in a flash of crudely termed but sound thinking, indicated when he said he would be honoured to talk to Kim Jong-un. While Mike Pence also has indicated the possibility, other parts of the administration are unfortunately making somewhat different sounds.
Press spokesperson Sean Spicer has suggested that the time is not right.
The State Department’s acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Susan Thornton, stated that ‘ North Korea would need to make a definitive change in its nuclear or missile programs before the United States would consider renewed talks’ (New York Times).
My view: The view expressed by Ms. Thornton is clearly counterproductive.
Firstly , you do not start negotiations demanding what you want to achieve as a precondition for talking.
If you do, you should expect futile negotiations.
One may observe that the US over the years has made numerous attempts to negotiate with North Korea, but the attitude reflected in Susan Thornton’s statement may have been an obstacle. Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates were once interviewed together on CNN. Asked about the US strategy vis a vis the North, they said: ‘We have a carrot and a stick’. Next they went on to describe what the carrot and the stick were about. Obviously North Korea watches CNN, and the obvious (reactance) outcome would be an anti reaction. A face to face informal meeting between the two heads of states could allow for less arrogance and less pre-programmed statements.
It is perhaps too much to expect Trump to invite Kim Jong-un to Mar-a-Lago. But Trump’s interaction with the Chinese President illustrates the difference direct contact sometimes makes. This is a context where Trump’s spontaneity and unconventional ways could be of value, and I cross my fingers.
‘Can I ask the kidnappers for anything?’
This question was asked by a participant in a UN training session I once attended. It was raised in the context of what captives can do to fulfill their needs. The trainer, a retired colonel, chewed on it for a while before he said: ‘I cannot see why not. The worst you can get is a No.’ His answer demonstrates the essence of today’s blog, the need for knowledge of essential psychological mechanisms in the interaction between kidnapper and victim.
So what was wrong about the colonel’s answer?
Let me try to give you a simple answer. As presented in my book Surviving Kidnappers, under the para Cognitive Dissonance, we are shaped by what we do to one another. Let us say you are my friend, and some day, for some reason, I do something negative to you. This collision between my attitude and what I just did, creates a dissonance in my mind that I need to get out of. I can basically do that in two ways. I can take a step back and say to myself: This was stupid, I regret I did this to my friend, and I want to continue to treat him as my friend. The other way is to adjust to what I just did. Meaning , I imagine that you somehow deserve what I did and start liking you a little less. If so, the chances increase that I will do other negative things to you, and we get a negative spiral.
What we normally do is the latter. We adapt to what we do. You might say that act beats attitude.
If we imagine that you and I are not such good friends, and for some reason I do something positive to you, we get the opposite result. Again, I feel a dissonance between my act and my attitude, and again I get out of it by adjusting to what I did. So I start liking you a little better and our relationship may get into a positive spiral.
So, if a kidnapper treats you well, he is likely to like you a little better and become less dangerous. If he treats you badly, he is likely to like you less and become more dangerous. It is therefore important to try to ‘extract’ positive acts and to avoid negative ones from his side.
How to do that? The strategic tools victims need in this regard require elaboration beyond the frames of this blog. But the point related to the colonel’s statement is this:
If you ask for anything without inhibitions, your requests may be turned down. Rejections are negative acts that will influence your relationship negatively. By asking for ‘anything’ you are therefore in dangerous territory.