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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

5 mins ago - World

Scoop: Biden administration objects to Israeli settlements plan

Israeli PM Naftali Bennett (L) meets with Secretary of State Tony Blinken. Photo: Olivier Douliery/Pool/AFP via Getty

The Biden administration has privately protested to the Israeli government over its plan to approve the planning and construction of more than 3,000 new housing units in the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, sources briefed on the issue tell me.

Why it matters: The approvals for new homes in the settlements will be the first since President Biden assumed office, and come after Biden and his top aides personally pressed Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to restrain settlement activity and decrease the number of new housing units.

2 hours ago - World

Pentagon warns of ISIS-K capabilities outside Afghanistan

The site of an airstrike conducted by the U.S. against a planner for ISIS-K in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan in August. Photo: Xinhua via Getty Images

U.S. intelligence believes ISIS-K has the "intent" to eventually launch attacks outside of Afghanistan and could be capable of doing so "somewhere between six or 12 months," a top Pentagon official told senators Tuesday.

Why it matters: The U.S. withdrawal and subsequent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has raised fears that terrorist groups will reconstitute and potentially pose a renewed threat to the U.S. homeland.

Exclusive: Billionaires back new media firm to combat disinformation

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A new public benefit corporation backed by billionaires Reid Hoffman, George Soros, and others is launching Tuesday to fund new media companies and efforts that tackle disinformation.

Why it matters: Good Information Inc. aims to fund and scale businesses that cut through echo chambers with fact-based information. As part of its mission, it plans to invest in local news companies.