Inside North Korea: Lessons for Diplomacy

Considering the culture and political atmosphere of North Korea, we need to ask: How could we even start to break the impasse with North Korea? There are several ideas.
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The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (aka North Korea) is often in the news for stories of behavior that defies conventional norms of human rights or international relations. The point of this post is not to rehash all of the negative press that has been the subject of most of North Korea's attention.

The point of this post is two fold: 1) to suggest that what I observed and learned as a guest in North Korea can be useful in a study of diplomacy. And perhaps more importantly, 2) what the public should look for in our political leaders to determine if they are acting in our best interests. If we have criteria that we can hold our elected officials and their appointees to, we can determine if they are on a path toward success or failure. We, the voters, determine the success of failure of our nation through the people we elect. For better or worse, we get the government we deserve.


I have been to North Korea. I went on an eight-day tour with colleagues from the Harvard School of Government and the Harvard Business School. We went for one reason: to learn. Using a Chinese tour company, we entered North Korea from Bejing in August 2013. We were told that there are an estimated 60,000 tourists that visit the DPRK, of which about 2,000 are from the United States annually.

While there, we were brought to museums, monuments, farms, a bowling alley, the beach, universities, parks, restaurants, homes, a public transit system -- the subway, the resting place of the Kim's, the MassGames and more. We traveled in a tour bus all over the country. Moving from one place to another, we were able to see what the conditions are like for people living in rural and urban communities. Toward the end of the week, we were granted permission to talk to locals and even dance with them. In short, we were given the red carpet treatment. We had a very good time.

People often say to me that we only saw what the government wanted us to see. This is true. And that is fine. We still saw more than these critics, and to put it into perspective, if a group of North Koreans came to the US as guests of our government and were shown around by the State Department, they would see the same things we saw. We would not bring a group of North Korean tourists to visit inmates on death row in prison, our poor neighborhoods, or our military facilities.

There were two major takeaways that I feel are especially important when addressing diplomacy with this country.

  • The Kim family is revered like no other. We visited the birthplace of Kim Il Sung. It was like visiting Bethlehem. Straw thatched roof, peaceful music, serene environment. Everywhere you go in the country, there are portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The people speak of them with a God-like reverence; when I mentioned this to our tour guide, he quickly corrected me and said, "no, just chairman." I then said, yes, but you respect them like Christians respect God or Jesus. He said "yes."
  • The US started the Korean War; the DPRK won the Korean War. This is a matter of national pride. There are numerous exhibits that are offered as evidence of the defeat of the US.

The question then becomes: How does the international community deal with North Korea?


Considering the culture and political atmosphere of North Korea, we need to ask: How could we even start to break the impasse with North Korea? There are several ideas.

  • Don't talk about regime change - this will only discourage the political leadership from working with the international community;
  • Appreciate their concerns - preserving the Kim family rule and saving face are necessary elements to working with the DPRK;
  • Understand and respect the power and reverence of the Kim family - the Kim family is omnipresent in the culture, politics and daily life in the DPRK;
  • Respect their power - the DPRK is a nuclear armed nation with the world's largest standing army. They spend one-third of their GDP on their military. They have an extensive web of security and intelligence services that permeates all levels of society. The West can't buy that sort of influence;
  • Start small and talk of shared interests - finding small things to agree on is a good way to develop a rapport and trust, necessary elements for bigger negotiations;
  • Expect setbacks - the DPRK and the international community do not trust each other. Accordingly, there will be times when progress is followed by inevitable setbacks. This should be expected to be part of the path to success;
  • Admit when a mistake has been made - there is perhaps no better way to undermine trust and confidence in a political negotiation than to dig one's heels in when a mistake has been made. Admitting mistake is an act of humility and respect. It comes at the temporary cost of one-upmanship, but it is the easiest way to get over and past and issue and move on. The flip side to this is that the DPRK has often used concessions by the West, and in particular the US, to bolster their case to their citizens and the international community that they are being bullied and that the West is aggressive towards the DPRK. While we should admit when we make a mistake, the right structure, content and tone of the admission are imperative.
  • Understand Juche - Dictating terms and conditions to the DPRK is a sure way to accomplish nothing with a nuclear power who is committed to the Juche ideal. Juche is as much a part of the North Korea identity as freedom and independence are a part of the American identity. North Korea is not deterred by threats of isolation from the international community. They pride themselves on their self reliance and independence.


Metrics of FailureFirst, how not to deal with North Korea. I borrow the lessons of what not to do from a former professor of mine, R. Nicholas Burns, former Under Secretary of State and currently a faculty member at the Harvard School of Government. Ambassador Burns taught some metrics of failure, which include, but are not limited to:

  • Failure will come when we limit discussion to our own self interests;
  • Failure will come when we don't anticipate the consequences of our behavior or tone;
  • We must want peace to get it; if we want war, we will get that;
  • Looking backward does not help forward movement;
  • Knowing when to wait and when to build international support depends on the situation. Getting this wrong will lead to failure;
  • When diplomacy and force are not combined, it undermines strength.

Metrics of SuccessApplying the lessons of the State Department's once third-highest ranking diplomat, Ambassador Burns taught in his course some metrics for success. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Have a strategic vision for success - have a plan. This must have identified tactics. Build a team to accomplish the strategy. Each team member is responsible for different tactics;
  • Compromise is always at the heart of any solution;
  • Putting self in the other person's shoes is necessary to ask how we may be wrong. Without this we may be aggravating the situation.
  • Psychology and international relations are intertwined. If we don't appreciate the culture, religion and mindset of the nation that we are dealing with, we are set up for failure. For many nations and cultures, saving face is very important for concessions to be made;
  • We need moral courage. We need to ask if we are going to go all the way and do the right thing even if it is unpopular.

To successfully navigate any impasse between two powers, we have to remember the words of Sun Tzu "know thyself and know thy enemy."

PAUL HEROUX is a State Representative from Massachusetts. Paul has been to North Korea, was a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, and has a Master's in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at

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