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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested that dialogue with North Korea will lead to a hasty denuclearization. This could be completed by January 2021. As a quid-pro-quo, sanctions would end, and North Korea would get U.S. security guarantees. Consequently, Vice President Mike Pence feels that the second summit should produce “a plan for identifying all of the weapons in question, identifying all the development sites, allowing for inspections of the sites and the plan for dismantling nuclear weapons.” None of this will happen.
What the second summit could produce is more of what the first summit produced. According to the 2019 New Year Speech of Kim Jong-un, the first summit led to “a dramatic turn in the bilateral relationship.” It could also result in agreements on the first steps in the path to a nuclear freeze and disarmament. Yet, even without clear and verifiable commitments, an improvement in the relationship would already be important because of two reasons.
First, better bilateral relations are necessary for the success of sanctions. Now, North Korean leaders see sanctions as a result of U.S. hostility. In his 2019 New Year Speech, Kim associated sanctions with force and regime change and failed to associate them with North Korea’s nuclear program. If sanctions are not viewed as a result of North Korea’s misbehavior, they fail to create an incentive to better behavior. The assumption that sanctions will continue due to hostility regardless of what the target of sanctions are, is the reason why comparative evidence shows that sanctions almost never succeed if their sender is an enemy of their target. The relationship must change before sanctions could work.
Second, a better relationship is a condition for North Korea’s nuclear disarmament. The speeches by Kim and his foreign minister show that the perceived threat—to the nation and to the regime from America—is the only public justification for North Korean nuclear weapons. Without this threat, nuclear weapons would not be the source of national pride they are today. Better relations do not automatically lead North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, but without an improvement in U.S.-North Korean relations, there is no hope for North Korean nuclear disarmament.
After the first summit, President Donald Trump was criticized for his naïve belief that “getting along” with the demonized leader of North Korea was a diplomatic achievement. Yet, for once, he was right.
Timo Kivimäki is a professor of international relations at the University of Bath, United Kingdom.