Losing the North Korea Nuke Talks in Translation

Maybe everyone else already knows this, but I was stunned to learn that an utterly pedestrian detail -- the reliability of translation services -- has hurt America's efforts to negotiate an end to the turmoil over North Korea's nuclear weapons. According to a report released this month by the Center for a New American Security, "uncertainty over translations has often derailed negotiations and undermined potential agreements."

The CNAS researchers, who interviewed "high-level" current and former officials from the U.S. and South Korea, elaborated:

Perhaps the most troubling example is the controversy over what Kang Sok-ju said in response to former Assistant Secretary of State Jim Kelly’s prodding over the North’s Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) program in 2002. According to the United States, Kang confirmed the existence of an HEU program, but this fact was later disputed by the North. This experience reinforced the view of some in the George W. Bush administration that North Korea was too unreliable to negotiate with. However, it remains unclear whether this was an instance of disingenuous negotiating or a genuine communication failure.

The researchers cited a 2005 case in which "the English version of the document contained the American preference ..., (but) the distinction was lost in the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese translations."

The lesson: "The United States must check drafts in multiple languages to ensure that they have captured the important intricacies of any agreement. ... The United States must make sure that nothing is lost in translation."

Abraham Denmark, Zachary Hosford, and Michael Zubrow wrote the CNAS report. Their work goes beyond this matter of translation, suggesting "eight new strategies and tactics" for addressing "eight obstacles faced in past negotiations." It makes for interesting reading. But I want to stick with translation.

Any of us who put faith in what a real counterinsurgency might be able to achieve in, say, Afghanistan should take a moment to dwell on the experience of the North Korea talks. In a counterinsurgency, soldiers live and die by negotiating all sorts of makeshift deals -- rarely, I suspect, with the benefit of being able to clear "drafts in multiple languages" through a team of translators, diplomats, and lawyers. Add Afghanistan's 28 percent adult literacy rate and suddenly the North Korea negotiations start to look relatively simple.

I don't know what this all amounts to. But it's sobering.

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