North Korea: Hopeful Summit
By Dr. Richard Saccone (R-39th)
Excitement abounds over the possibility of a historic summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean President Kim Jong-un and rightfully so. Such a meeting would be a tremendous step forward in improving relations with North Korea, and developing relationships is the key to successfully working with the Hermit Kingdom.

Lacking diplomatic relations, the United States has no presence inside North Korea to develop relationships or interpret messages that could signal improved relations. Most of what we learn comes from South Korea, other third countries and debriefing of defectors. This has caused decades of misunderstanding and confrontation.

North Koreans actually desire better relations with the United States, though, both sides have been paralyzed on how to achieve it. North Korean leaders know their country is plagued by poverty and economic dysfunction, but they remain truly proud of their culture and heritage. The massive North Korean military is not the menace it once was – a shell of its former capacity, strong in the will to fight, but weakened by years of dwindling resources and cuts in training. Leaders know their forces could not sustain offensive operations and fear war would result in regime change. North Koreans do not desire war, but will fiercely defend their homeland. Most government officials I met understood the country’s condition but demanded respect as a nation. United States threats, backed by will, can be effective to a point, but overplaying that hand can stiffen North Korea’s resolve and escalate to a devastating conflict that will cost our South Korean and Japanese allies dearly. North Koreans are known as masters of brinksmanship, and they have played that card well for over 60 years by menacing their neighbors, this time through a number of missile tests, a strategy that has kept them relevant and won major concessions from the West.

And so enter the possibility of a breakthrough compromise with the hope of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Sounds wonderful, but not so fast. We have been down this road before in 1994 with the Clinton/Carter deal known as the Agreed Framework, which ended in failure after a decade of conflicts and misunderstandings. Now here we are again, ready to negotiate another deal which ostensibly shows promise, but we need to ensure this one succeeds.

Make no mistake, the summit, if successful, will be the initial step in a longer negotiation - ultimately producing a complex final agreement, which by nature, will include various snares that could scuttle the entire plan. Actual implementation will include even more possible pitfalls that may not surface for years into the program. These are a few of the lessons from the Agreed Framework.

Of course, we should avoid these traps ahead of time but that will require experienced negotiators who understand the complex societal and cultural difference between our two countries. Developing relationships, interpreting gestures, deciphering North Korea’s intent takes skill and knowledge. Unfortunately, most of our officials are dangerously ignorant of the nuances of North Korean society.

So what is the course ahead? We learned during the Agreed Framework of the 1990s that North Koreans are tough negotiators but are willing to cooperate. They think logically and respond positively to clearly defined proposals, kept in good faith and delivered in a spirit of cooperation. Fortunately, it is possible to deal with them without compromising our own values. As I have written in two books, we must abandon the adversarial negotiation approach and pursue a more collaborative mindset, searching for common ground while remaining firm but fair. This is not theory; it works.

Strategically, the Trump administration has wisely situated itself to bargain from a position of strength. We must leverage that advantage while allowing North Korea the ability to compromise without losing face. Kim Jong-un has already posed two gestures of good faith -the release of American prisoners and the destruction of one nuclear test site. This may appear minor to us but are important gestures to the North Koreans. These gestures should be responded to positively by our side. North Korea has internal factions. Military leaders are likely warning Kim that this summit is all a ploy by the United States, while the diplomats are arguing for a deal.

America has factions too. Fighting between Congress and the administration helped sink the Agreed Framework. Now Democrats wishing to prevent President Trump from achieving success may similarly impact any new agreement.

We must proceed with proposals that can convince factions on both sides that success is both achievable and verifiable. One that allows all sides to save face and avoid the military confrontation neither side wants.

Prepare for the long haul. No quick solutions here, but have hope that this time we will get it right.

Dr. Richard Saccone lived and worked in both North and South Korea for 14 years. He teaches international relations and political science at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. He is currently a Pennsylvania state representative from the 39th District. Contact Dr. Saccone at

Representative Rick Saccone
39th District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Media Contact: Mike Madry
717.260.6587 /

Share |