The US-North Korea Summit: Deeper into the twilight zone

Walid Jawad
Walid Jawad
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Both US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un appear eager to find a way to meet in Singapore, the second week of June.

The on-again-off-again, possible, maybe, meeting is facing serious challenges. Both Trump and Kim have dynamic personality traits and absolute decision-making powers over attending or canceling the meeting, putting the whole process at risk of imploding due to personality dynamics.

Unfortunately, not much can be done about their personalities. The other challenge is the “N” factor of foot-in-mouth syndrome plaguing US administration representatives. While nothing can be done about the personalities of either of the leaders, something can be said about the statements coming out of the administration, DON’T.

As in do not say, explain, or speak about the summit, unless it is being said directly to the North Koreans. Sure, there is curiosity around the event. The media is trying to do its job by understanding and communicating the information it gatherings, but the end goal of peace throughout the Korean peninsula is clear enough. There is no need to defend against the method or timing at this point.

The latest political break-up is a cautionary tale emphasizing the power of words highlighting its role in the subtle art of the possible

Walid Jawad

The Libya model

John Bolton, the National Security Advisor, said a couple of weeks ago: “we are looking at the Libyan model of 2003-2004,” as he explained the Trump administration’s options to denuclearize North Korea. The Libya model provides a roadmap for which a complete, verifiable, non-reversible denuclearization can be achieved, which is the US declared goal for the North Korea talks.

A debatable, yet seemingly sensible approach except when listening to the same statement through Kim’s ears. Kim would rightfully understand the Libya Model to mean the demise of his family’s reign in North Korea in a similar fashion to that of Muammar Gaddafi, shot to death, after denuclearization.

In typical fashion, Bolton walked right into a communication twilight zone where his statement induces an unintended reaction, a very negative one at that. The US has been issuing ill-conceived statements over the decades, plunging the nation into nightmarish situations.

ALSO READ: Trump sees ‘brilliant potential’ in North Korea ahead of summit

The example that stands out the most was George W. Bush’s “crusade” comment in waging war on terror in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attack on the US. The connotation “crusade” holds here in the west is positive, while it evoked the opposite in the mind of the Muslim world.

It caused a collective reliving of the historic trauma of the 11th to 13th century when crusaders waged war against Muslims. There was no escaping it, Muslims around the world understood Bush’s word to be a declaration of war against Islam. Not the intent, yet a negative and costly result.

Learning from mistakes

This is the type of lesson consecutive administrations try to avoid learning from its own mistakes. It is challenging to account for the possible contextual interpretation of the receiving party. What makes it more difficult is that many of these statements are intended for a specific audience not accounting for the law of unintended consequences in the age of social and mass media.

There are no longer messages exclusive to a specific audience. The reach of statements is wide and deep. Statements are magnified when they are perceived negatively by the target audience. They become counterproductive when such statements hit the receivers’ emotional cords as they trigger collective memories of suffering.

Particularly, when such statements fit well in the prevailing narrative of the day about the sinister intentions of the other. There is a short fable in the world of translation that goes like this: A translator was asked to translate the idiom, “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.” Once she was done, that translation was given to another translator to translate it back from the target language to English again. She handed in the translation, which read “the blind, the crazy.”

ALSO READ: North Korea’s Kim hopes Trump summit will ‘end history of confrontation’

At times, words are interpreted differently even within groups sharing many similarities including groups speaking the same language. On its face, speaking the same language avoids such pitfalls, in reality, there is such thing as misunderstanding due to a myriad of selective tendencies.

Moreover, the symbolism attached to each concept or word is not always agreed upon; same words defined by completely different historic, cultural, and emotional dictionary. Communication challenges are insurmountable.

With that in mind, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to seize the moment during his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday to explain the “Libya model” comment when Sen. Ed Markey pressed him by asking “Why would you think that there would be any other interpretation than what happened to Qaddafi at the end of his denuclearization, which is that he wound up dead? Why think that that would not, in fact, elicit hostility from a negotiating partner only three weeks from sitting down across the table?” A very valid question.

Alleviating worries

Trump, on the other hand, attempted to correct the record by saying that “the Libyan model is not the model we have at all in thinking about North Korea.” But, was that enough to alleviate Kim’s worries? No, it was not. Kim continued threatening to pull out of the summit promoting Trump to abruptly cancel the anticipated meeting on Thursday.

No doubt the goal of the Kim nuclear program is to guarantee his own survival. Kim is a calculating dictator with no tolerance for any real or perceived descent, who’s starving his own people.

Trump confirmed his understanding of Kim’s end goal when he said last week “I will guarantee his safety, we will guarantee his safety,” accepting the basic equation: complete and final denuclearization in return North Korea becomes prosperous without disrupting the countries power structure led by Kim.

ALSO READ: Trump tweets: Meeting with Kim on June 12 in Singapore

The latest political break-up is a cautionary tale emphasizing the power of words highlighting its role in the subtle art of the possible. Military might only allows countries room to hold larger diplomatic space. It is inexcusable to squander the military advantage and diplomatic upper hand by overlooking the context of transmitted messages.

On Saturday, a new message was transmitted by Sarah Sanders, the White House spokesperson saying: “the White House pre-advance team for Singapore will leave as scheduled in order to prepare should the summit take place.”

It appears, for now, that Bolton’s Libya commit did not completely kill the chances of bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula. Enough said.
Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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