Tuesday, July 11, 2006

followup: diplomacy's highs and lows

As an English exercise, the diplomacy activity was marvelous. We'd been working on "if-clause" grammar in previous lessons, and there was a lot of "iffing" today as people tried to read each other's minds and guess at the consequences of their decisions. As an exercise in mock diplomacy, the activity was something of a humorous fiasco. Maybe you politics junkies will see the humor in what transpired:

I divided the class into six teams, each representing a country in the six-way talks. China and Russia ended up being "teams" of one delegate each; NK, SK, Japan, and the US were each represented by two delegates. We reviewed the assignment together, and everyone had a few minutes to read the writeups for their particular countries.

The two NK delegates immediately placed themselves in a corner, bickering with each other over how best to argue their case to each of the other countries. Japan and South Korea stuck together like Siamese twins, and China and Russia-- each represented by only one person-- sat with the two-member American team (one member of the US team had to leave for a bathroom break, leaving the others to wonder when the hell America would get on the ball and properly rejoin the discussion).

The NK delegates began to wonder aloud whether anyone was going to bother to talk with them. In the meantime, they made no move to chase America down and force bilateral talks. I suddenly transformed into a Swiss delegate and asked NK if they had a message to relay to the other countries. NK said they wanted America to remove its troops from SK soil, and they also wanted food and fuel. Furthermore, they wanted SK to pressure America to leave the peninsula. In return, NK would consider starting up the family-reunion program again. I asked whether NK was formally requesting talks with SK and the US. NK said yes, so I went over to the US/China/Russia convention and asked the US if they were ready to talk with NK, because NK had something to tell them. The US reps shrugged, said goodbye to China and Russia, and moved over to sit with NK.

China and Russia complained that the country writeups I'd created (see previous post) showed an American bias, something I, as an American teacher, wasn't about to deny. I told the delegates that they were free to rewrite their entries as they saw fit. However, the US delegates, before departing for talks with the North Koreans, had done some damage: Russia, which had been somewhat sympathetic to NK, became convinced by the US argument that NK might produce weapons that could be sold to terrorist nations. Russia thus pronounced itself neutral in the six-way talks, and continued to have a pleasant conversation with China.

Japan and South Korea, meanwhile, simply weren't interested in speaking with North Korea directly. Japan kept pressuring SK to take the NK situation seriously, while SK counterargued that the Japanese were overreacting, and that everyone would be better off talking about trade. Japan expressed deep skepticism about NK's motives, but seemed to be having a pleasant enough time sitting with SK.

The US and North Korea made no headway in their private talk in the corner. Neither side was convinced that the other side was entirely trustworthy, and both had diametrically opposite agendas.

In all cases, halfhearted attempts at formulating some sort of deal were made, but no deal actually got off the ground. By the end, NK was still in its corner, deadlocked with the US, while Japan and SK sat in their corner, and Russia and China occupied a third corner. A round table of all six nations never formed. I informed the class that, in a sense, NK had gotten its way: it was talking directly with the US (partly thanks to, uh, Swiss intervention), and it would still continue its missile testing. This is precisely the kind of game NK wants to play: all parties deadlocked, and no change in the status quo except on NK's terms.

The students were marvelous, though: they refused to take a break when breaktime rolled around, and seemed genuinely interested in talking over the issues. As I anticipated, I was asked quite a few questions about how best to phrase an argument. The happy surprise was that more than a few students were politically aware enough to be able to bandy about terms like "IAEA." This is a motivated (and somewhat competitive) class, and I'm lucky to be teaching them.


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