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The psychology of persuasion

Mar 14,2019
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U.S. President Donald Trump, right, meets North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for their second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 28. [AP/YONHAP]
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Kim Hyun-ki
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

A day after the Hanoi, Vietnam, summit, I dropped by the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi in Vietnam, where the meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump had been held. Flanked by a garden and a pool on the first floor of the hotel was Le Club Bar, where the two leaders were expected to share a working lunch before their talks broke down.

As I walked toward the seat where Kim was supposed to sit across from Trump, I was shocked. On a shelf behind the seat was a book titled “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.” It was a Korean translation of psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini’s 1984 book on persuasion and marketing. As I turned the pages, I was shocked once more. It appeared to illustrate how Kim failed to persuade Trump in the denuclearization negotiations the day before. What irony it was to see a Korean translation of the book placed right behind where Kim was to have sat during the luncheon in the Vietnamese capital.

In the book, Cialdini explains that the key principle of persuasion is reciprocity. He refers to the 1972 Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon presidency, shedding light on G. Gordon Liddy, who was in charge of intelligence-gathering operations for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (CPR), a fundraising organization for Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign. In January 1972, Liddy’s first proposal described a $1 million scheme that included, in addition to the bugging, a “chase plane” that was specially equipped with communications devices, break-ins, kidnapping and mugging squads, as well as a yacht featuring “high-class call girls,” to blackmail Democratic politicians. The CPR rejected it. A second proposal eliminated some of those proposals and reduced the cost to $500,000. It was rejected again. It was only after these two initial proposals that Liddy’s third plan, costing $250,000, was approved in March. Jeb Magruder, deputy director of the CPR, was quoted in the book as recalling, “No one was particularly overwhelmed with the project [but] after starting at the grandiose sum of $1 million, we thought that probably $250,000 would be an acceptable figure.”

In short, the book explains that if you make a concession, the other side will reciprocate with a concession of its own. If you keep pushing extreme demands, they will assume you’re unwilling to negotiate.

That’s exactly what happened at the Hanoi summit: Kim demanded complete sanctions relief and it was rejected. He also failed to offer a second proposal that could be seen as attractive by Trump. Kim didn’t read Trump’s mind.

It’s not only Kim who failed to persuade Trump. South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration also failed by claiming in the weeks leading up to the second U.S.-North summit that inter-Korean economic cooperation could help improve U.S.-North relations. When Trump called Moon after the Hanoi summit collapsed, he asked him to play the role of mediator seven times in the 25-mintute conversation, according to the chairman of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), Lee Hae-chan. In a nationally televised address on March 1, Moon went so far as to say he would consult with Washington about resuming two inter-Korean economic projects — Mount Kumgang tours and the Kaesong Industrial Complex — in North Korea.

Lee Do-hoon, Seoul’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, visited Washington after the summit to convey Moon’s initiative to economically re-engage with Pyongyang. But just an hour after Lee left Washington to return home, a senior State Department official answered “No” when he was asked whether the Trump administration was considering giving exemptions to inter-Korean economic projects during a press briefing. Never has Washington publicly given such a blunt response to Seoul’s economic endeavors with Pyongyang. South Korea also failed to read Washington’s thoughts.

As a correspondent in Washington, I hear that South Korea doesn’t seem to understand Trump’s language: when he asks for mediation, for instance, it means persuading North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons, not pursuing inter-Korean economic initiatives.

For Kim Jong-un, there’s nothing much to lose by holding on to his nuclear weapons. North Korean people have grown quite tolerant when it comes to poverty. It’s no problem if he fails to persuade the United States. The problem lies with us. Seoul floated the idea of joint economic projects even after the Hanoi summit fell apart, leading to a schism in the decades-old alliance.

The same goes for the DP’s outraged reaction to remarks by Rep. Na Kyung-won, floor leader of the Liberty Korea Party, when she likened President Moon to “Kim Jong-un’s chief spokesman.” The ruling party claimed Na was guilty of “contempt of the head of state.” The ruling party only sees what it wants to. That perspective is no good for diplomacy.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 13, Page 31