Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Peaceful Co-existence

Following the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010 and the loss of numerous sailors, relations between North and South Korea were at a low ebb, even by their standards. Tensions then ratcheted up further this past summer when landmine explosions in the DMZ injured two South Korean soldiers.

But in August, North and South Korea agreed to end the latest period of heightened military tensions marked by artillery fire and increased military readiness.  They did not reach an accord, however, by “making nice” or agreeing to let “bygones be bygones.”    After extensive discussions, each side made subtle but significant concessions.

From the South’s perspective, the North’s most significant action was to express regret about the wounding of South Korean soldiers in landmine blasts. Although the North denied laying the mines and did not take responsibility for the blasts, the South did not insist that it do so—a demand that would have forced North Korea to lose face and likely maintain heightened tensions rather than lead to a peaceful resolution.  South Korea was free to see North Korea’s statement as an apology, even as North Korea did not have to admit to offering one.

South Korea, in turn, agreed to cease broadcasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda it was blasting by loudspeakers across the demilitarized zone—a source of intense annoyance and humiliation to North Korean leadership.

Additionally, talks yielded an agreement to arrange reunions of families separated by the border during upcoming holidays – a low risk gesture by the respective governments but a highly meaningful one to their citizens.

I think there are some lessons here for conflicted divorced parents.

It’s natural to want an apology when feeling wronged, particularly when it concerns one’s children or matters of trust and betrayal.  But demanding the other parent humiliate himself or herself and thereby lose face accomplishes little and risks a lot. Accepting the statement, “I’m sorry the kids have developed a bad impression of you, that’s not right, let’s work towards repairing things quickly,” rather than insisting the other parent own up to badmouthing, demonstrates maturity, self-control, and a commitment to moving forward.   From a negotiator’s perspective, this transaction involves mutual concessions: one parent concedes regret and accepts joint responsibility to solve the problem, the other parent concedes the necessity to receive a full bore apology in the spirit of moving on. 

As international diplomats understand, it is also important for parents to back up such statements with specific actions; and oftentimes it is sufficient to make gestures that entail relatively minimal risk.   Forwarding school notices, for example, takes little effort but can have a big impact on the one receiving them.  Speaking courteously, even if just a matter of small talk, sets a positive, appreciative tone that can carry over to the next substantive discussion.  Volunteering to transport the children’s athletic equipment and bulky musical instruments is really no big deal for parents – but a really big deal for their kids. 

The key here?  Don’t get caught up in the “principle of the thing.”  A self-righteous approach may feel justified, even gratifying, but it is unlikely to accomplish the goal of peaceful co-parenting.


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