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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

President Trump has laid out what a successful outcome from his talks with North Korea looks like: "They get rid of their nukes."

But, but, but: North Korea may well make such a promise, but “it is going to be emphatically impossible to conclude definitively that North Korea has given up all of its nuclear material," James Acton, a physicist and verification expert, tells Axios. "The big challenge is not verifying the dismantlement of those they tell us” about, he says, “it’s verifying that they haven’t maintained materials secretly.”

The challenges

Sampling enrichment facilities and observing centrifuges may only give you part of the picture, Jon Wolfsthal, a former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation on Barack Obama's National Security Council, tells Axios:

“You also do a subjective assessment … is North Korea being totally forthcoming? Or are they saying, 'we can’t provide you with that, it doesn’t exist anymore, why are you asking for that?'”
  • North Korea could, for example, say they used up 30kg of fissile material in six previous nuclear weapons tests, when in fact they used just 20kg and maintained 10kg elsewhere secretly. There’s not necessarily a way to verify that, Acton says, because the materials have, in theory, been blown up.
  • History matters: North Korea has been untruthful before when inconsistencies between observations and declarations arose, leading to the collapse of previous agreements.
  • U.S. intelligence gaps on North Korea’s nuclear program exacerbate the problem: “There’s no way Donald Trump comes out verifying all their nuclear weapons” because “we don’t even know how many we have” to begin with, Wolfsthal said.
The administration's view

“A lot of this will turn on the strategic decision by the North Korean government as to whether they intend to denuclearize” in a serious way this time, a State Department official tells Axios. “Unless [Trump] gets a good deal,” including “permanent, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the program … he’s going to walk away,” the official said.

  • For now, we’re pretty preliminary in our planning,” but “this would not be our first rodeo," the official said.
  • Yes, but: There's a reason past negotiations ended in failure.
The other nuclear deal
  • The Trump-Kim summit would follow Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, which proponents say had the most stringent verification methods in history.
  • Unlike North Korea, Iran hadn’t reached the stage of having nuclear weapons to dismantle.
  • This will be a first: “We have never verified the dismantlement of nuclear warheads at the time they’re being dismantled,” Corey Hinderstein, a former senior coordinator for nuclear security and nonproliferation policy affairs at the Department of Energy, told Axios.
  • The North is essentially a black hole for U.S. intelligence, much more so than Iran, so the building blocks of trust are much wobblier.

Watch: Former CIA analyst on the Trump-Kim summit.

Go deeper

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
55 mins ago - Economy & Business

Trump blocks banks from limiting loans to gun and oil companies

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Big banks are no longer allowed to reject business loan applicants because of the industry in which they operate, according to a new rule finalized on Thursday by the Trump administration.

Why it matters: Wall Street has curtailed its exposure to industries like guns, oil and private prisons, driven by both public and shareholder pressures. This new rule could reverse that trend.

Former FDA commissioner: "Reliable drug supply is absolutely critical"

Axios' Caitlin Owens and former FDA commissioner Mark McClellan. Photo courtesy of Axios Events

Having a reliable supply of pharmaceutical drugs throughout America will be "absolutely critical" to boosting affordability in health care during the Biden administration, former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Mark McClellan said at a virtual Axios Event on Friday.

The big picture: McClellan, who served under President George W. Bush, says drugs having limited supply and limited competition leads to elevated pricing. He considers drug supply to be a national security and public health issue.

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
4 hours ago - Economy & Business

Americans are still spending money

Source: Census Bureau; Chart: Axios Visuals

Americans spent more money at stores and restaurants in 2020 than they did in 2019 — even in the face of a devastating global pandemic that shut down broad sectors of the economy.

Why it matters: The monthly retail sales report this morning came in well below expectations, and showed consumer spending falling on a seasonally-adjusted basis. Total expenditures were still higher in December 2020 than they were a year previously, however.