Further reading: North Korea is not denuclearizing.
For example, Kim would need assurances that whatever concessions the Trump administration provides— such as a peace declaration leading to a peace treaty or the reduction or removal of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula—are permanent and legally binding. He also likely needs to believe that Seoul is committed to a foreign policy untethered to U.S. preferences, and that North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program—upon which he has staked his legitimacy and power, and his country’s security and prosperity—is a greater threat to these goals than an asset. On top of all this, he would almost certainly have to be convinced that he would not suffer the fate of Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, key examples the regime brings up to assert its nuclear-weapons status.
Even the steps North Korea has taken to date, which include reportedly destroying a nuclear-weapons test site and dismantling a missile-test facility, are either reversible or have little to no technical impact, given the advanced state of its nuclear and missile programs. In essence, they are low-to-no-cost moves for Pyongyang.
But leaders can always surprise us. Libya abandoned a struggling nuclear-weapons effort in exchange for sanctions relief and a fundamentally different relationship with the West. The government of South Africa decided to chart a different course, free of nuclear weapons. After the Iraq War, it was discovered that Saddam did not have an active nuclear-weapons program, but that he was unable to come completely clean, in part because he had to keep his adversaries guessing. These situations do not offer a perfect parallel to that of North Korea, which has an advanced nuclear-weapons program. But they do suggest that change is possible, and that it can be hard, in the moment, to distinguish between a tough—or perhaps insecure—negotiator and an honest one.
Although it’s quite unlikely that Kim is willing to fully denuclearize, his reluctance so far to make meaningful concessions does not necessarily indicate that he hasn’t made the shift that Trump and Moon claim. Even if he is willing to denuclearize, it would be logical for him to approach the United States—a longtime adversary—and South Korea with caution. He would want to do as little as possible at the outset in order to retain his negotiating leverage.
This is where Kim could take steps to show that, even if he’s unwilling to give up all of his weapons tomorrow, his strategic intentions have changed. Sending such signals would be costly for him, because they would require risking his prestige, resources, and time. Sending such signals would also chip away at his regime’s ideological foundations. For North Korea watchers, going through the exercise of identifying such signals is important: It will help us make agile assessments about Kim’s intentions, and allow us to better identify and exploit opportunities to move the regime closer to denuclearization.