Washington-Pyongyang communication: easily lost in translation

By Alessandro Arduino and Paul M. Cole Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/11 18:18:39

As the US and North Korea inch toward nuclear confrontation, the importance of the ability to send, receive and understand threats increases dramatically. War caused by miscalculation of the other side's meaning and intentions is not a theoretical danger, particularly in the current state of bilateral belligerence between the US and North Korea. 

Analysts and officials who talk about diplomatic and military solutions as if they were unrelated actions are making a false distinction. A threat without credible consequences, the "or else" statement, is sterile.

The ability to ensure the other side receives the threat cannot be taken for granted. Metaphors and gestures that mean everything to one side may be meaningless to the other. Such a problem may be mitigated or avoided altogether through the use of culturally sensitive interpreters who understand and are able to express the cultural correlates of both sides.   

China is uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role in preventing the US-North Korean dispute from deteriorating into a military conflict.

Effective trilateral communication between Washington and Pyongyang via Beijing will diminish the risk that a message lost in translation could result in disaster. Without effective communication, a standoff could quickly deteriorate into a crisis. 

An effective threat consists of five parts: Message, Channel, Credibility, Understanding, and Assessment. If any one of these elements fails or is deficient in any meaningful way, the probability that the threat will fail increases dramatically. 

Message. North Koreans have threatened to destroy the US, starting with the territory of Guam. President Donald Trump has threatened North Koreans with "fire and fury, the likes of which the world has never seen before." 

Beijing's threats of economic sanctions against Pyongyang have been expressed as a "suspension for suspension." The dual suspension appeals to the US and South Korea to cease military exercises in exchange for North Korea putting a lid on its nuclear ambitions to avoid "speeding trains coming toward each other."

Channel. Information theory distinguishes information from noise. The problem, however, is that the amount of information a channel can carry is limited. If the wrong channel is selected, or if too much information is crammed into it, noise is created.     

The US and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations, thus messages between the two parties must be delivered by third parties or through open channels. North Koreans have delivered their threats through television broadcasts. The US president, who has relied on television interviews, a UN speech and Twitter, has also called upon Beijing to carry the mail to Pyongyang. 

Credibility. North Korea's threats to destroy the US have no credibility. The potential to cause catastrophic damage, however, cannot be ruled out. The US threat to retaliate against an attack from North Korea in a way that would eliminate North Korea as a functioning state is credible to Trump's inner circle. 

Understanding. Both the US and China have specialists who are able to read between the lines and facilitate cross-cultural communication. The problem is compounded by the fact that the US president has excluded State Department country specialists from any advisory role. 

Beijing is usually not fooled by ambiguity. The North Korean government cultivates ambiguity, which distracts American attention from the essential facts of the matter that due to experience Beijing is able to see clearly. Beijing also hates uncertainty, which the US administration produces in abundance. Twitter is faster, but less precise than diplomatic cables. Any distrust or friction between Beijing and Washington not only plays into Pyongyang's hands, it creates and amplifies the noise that distracts the parties from the meaning of the threats.

When General James Clapper visited Pyongyang in 2014, to negotiate the release of two American prisoners, Clapper discovered that North Korea had completely misunderstood the purpose of the trip. North Koreans were convinced the purpose of Clapper's visit was to open a bilateral dialogue. Clapper said, "They were bitterly disappointed. I was blown away by the siege mentality - the paranoia - that prevails among the leadership of North Korea. When we sabre-rattle, when we fly B-1s accompanied by jet escorts from the Republic of Korea and Japan, it makes us feel good, it reassures the allies, but what we don't factor in is the impact on the North Koreans."

Assessment. America's threats have been self-referential recommendations. In other words, if something scares or impresses Americans, it must scare or impress everyone else in equal measure. 

Trading threats will get neither party anywhere, primarily because neither party believes the threats have any credibility. Beijing put a strong hand on Kim Jong-un's wallet but has avoided "strategic strangulation" Americans have demanded. Some oil continues to flow from China - for now. China's policy toward North Korea continues to be, "No war. No chaos. No nuclear weapons," in that order. 

Harsher but not definitively crippling sanctions under the UN mandate and with China's backing already showcased an unexpected Sino-American consensus and a common language that Pyongyang understands.

Churchill said, "Jaw, jaw is better than war, war." In this case, the solution is to let the money do the talking.  It's a language the North Korean government has repeatedly demonstrated that they understand without any risk of misunderstanding. 

Dr. Arduino is Co-Director of the Security and Crisis Management program at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Dr. Cole is a political economist and business consultant. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn


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