North and South Korea appear to be finding their way to peaceful relations after decades of conflict and strife. The Korean dispute has been addressed by more traditional diplomatic and mediation approaches for many years, yet these have never born real fruit. Though the details of what exactly transpired remain murky, the success to date of the negotiations appears to be largely due to the unorthodox interventions of U.S. President Donald Trump, as confirmed by the South Korean leader’s statement that he should receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
What might we glean and learn about Trump’s approach, about traditional conflict resolution processes by comparison, and about ourselves?
In his book The Righteous Mind American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that our moral values – and our various political orientations that reflect them – are not governed, as we like to think, by our intellect and reason – but by deeply intuitive reflexes rooted in our evolutionary past. When we argue our political outlook we are merely rationalizing it post facto.
Haidt likens our intuitive predispositions to an “elephant,” and our logical capacity as the animal’s rider who can seldom, if ever, completely control the beast. Intuitions have a mind and will of their own. This is evidenced by the fact that so much political negotiation between opposing sides in a conflict results in no agreement. Riders are addressing each other’s rationalizing faculty, and not, instead, the others’ elephants.
What does this mean in the case of the Trump and apparent diplomatic breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula? In our view it means two things:
First, that Trump’s method of escalation, harsh and dangerous as it was, spoke directly to North Korea’s elephant. Pyongyang derived security, an innate human need, through nuclear and ballistic missile tests combined with political and economic extortion. Kim Jong Un, along with all his predecessors, firmly believed his bluff of hostility prevented foreign powers from attacking the regime. Trump’s brinksmanship undermined that, compelling the North Korean elephant to consider other ways of getting its security needs met. Brutally there is an element of fear having played a role here. But fear is a fundamental human instinct that can sway us in many directions. Up until recently fear swayed the North Korean regime towards confrontation. Currently, it is swaying to towards peacemaking.
Second, we believe that the language of our “elephants” is also made up of certain basic needs which need to be met in order for a person, or collectives, to be healthy. Security, as evidenced in the above example, is one of them. Others include the need for community, status, control, and competence and achievement. Another crucial need, which likely played an important role in the Korean conflict, as well as its apparent resolution right now, is that of attention. Being isolated from the international community, it may very well be the case that the North Korean leadership has also been seeking a certain kind of attention exchange through its unruly behaviour over the years. Again, Donald Trump’s expressed willingness to meet Kim Jong Un spoke to North Korea’s elephant – as did the inclusion of North Korea at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang. The regime was allowed to sample and thus envision a fuller, more productive form of attention exchange, which has helped bring Pyongyang to the negotiation table. As in the case of all our basic needs, they will be met through whatever means an individual or collective finds available or suitable. These can be both constructive or destructive.
Traditional diplomacy revolves around discussions of conscious rational interests and a dialogue between parties aimed at a greater understanding of these interests. Valuable as this may be in itself, it may miss the boat: our elephants – which are made up of underlying motivations masquerading as interests or apparently irrational political actions.
Third parties may have played a role in catalyzing the American-Korean rapprochement. While we don’t want to underestimate that, we also need to be clear about the crucial need to address the elephant, which Trump has done inadvertently. By shining a light on this, we are not advocating for realpolitik. We are instead urging that we become more aware of these hidden human needs and motivations and how they play out in the political world. If the Korean process continues along these lines, it can serve as a case study to learn that.