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North Korea in the Age of Chamberlain
By Peter O’Brien

We’ve been living in the age of Neville Chamberlain. You remember Chamberlain, the fellow who (in 1938) negotiated away Czechoslovakia’s freedom so as to not upset Hitler.

Let me explain. In a recent comedy-drama there’s a scene where one character tells the bad guy - with whom he is negotiating - what his first "bid" will be, but then tells him "if all else fails we really will settle for..." Like Chamberlain, the character is willing to "give away the farm."

Sadly this is sort of how Western Negotiations (short of Ronald Reagan) seem to have proceeded for the last 70 years: a crisis develops somewhere with some despot, the US and the West respond, "viable" positions - for the West - are worked out on the front pages of every major newspaper, discussed endlessly on the news, and then the "negotiators" meet and an agreement is signed. Invariably (there are exceptions, but they’re too few in number) we end up paying a great deal of money for minor concessions, and then the process repeats itself.

Eventually, the despot dies, after decades in place, and some éminence grise from the Ivory Towers of academe chortles with pride about how his strategy worked, "knew it all along," and he (or she) writes another never-to-be-read best-seller and waits to be appointed Ambassador-at-large for this or that.

That for 30 or 40 or 50 years the population of country X suffered through our passive acceptance of the despot, that we allowed neighbors of country X to be bullied, that we turned a blind eye to support country X received from Russia and China and Iran, none of these things matter. Instead, the "adults," the "experts," will tell us that "you don't understand," because, after all, "it was the only strategy that would work."

And along came Mr. Trump.

I have a friend, a really smart guy, works as a financial advisor in Greenwich. Just after Mr. Trump announced his candidacy for President, he made a comment that, as the days have gone by, rings truer and truer. What he said was this: "I don't know him directly, but there are several guys like him, developers from Queens and the Bronx; they can be a bit loud, and sometimes they come off a bit rough. But they're smart, they have lots of common sense, and they have spent years dealing with the mob and union bosses and corrupt politicians and they still manage to get things done."

That seems to be a pretty good résumé for dealing with the likes of Kim and Xi, who both can comfortably fit the title of crime boss.

One thing that I suspect is true of Mr. Trump, and other successful developers, is that they know, unlike many foreign policy savants, that where you start in any negotiation may have little if anything to do with where you intend to finish.

As you’re well aware by now, on the 24th Mr. Trump sent a letter to Mr. Kim of North Korea telling him that the summit planned for June (in Singapore) is off. Within hours, in a tremendously unusual event, North Korea responded that they’re ready to talk. Then it was learned that Mr. Kim would soon be on his way to Beijing to check in with his boss, Emperor Xi.

Emperor Xi (who is Mr. Kim’s boss), of course, has had good and bad days over the past several weeks as Mr. Trump first announced new tariffs against China, then singled out several Chinese firms for especially harsh treatment, then seemed to step back as Xi offered certain trade concessions. Now, apparently, new hurdles may be facing Chinese businesses wishing to sell in the US.

Of course, many of the foreign policy doyens are trying to decide who won (Xi or Kim) and how badly Mr. Trump lost. But last I checked, there are no UN sanctions against the US. On top of that, it's worth remembering that both China and North Korea import large, and growing, amounts of both food and fuel. And it’s North Korea and China that seem to be scrambling to catch up…

There may not be a summit in Singapore in June. But, frankly, I think it's time we give up the Chamberlain approach to negotiations. If that means we let a developer from Queens take over, well, let's see how that works. Certainly can't be any worse than what we've had in the past.


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