NBC: North Korea may gladly give us a hamburger today for no denuclearization tomorrow

As of this writing, the summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump is still a go, but what do the two sides want to get out of it? The US has made it clear that the main topic and the bottom line has to be denuclearization, followed by normalized relations. NBC reports that the CIA’s intel analysts insist that North Korea will never — never — agree to give up its nukes. It might, however, offer Trump a cuisine offer they suspect he can’t refuse:

A new U.S. intelligence assessment has concluded that North Korea does not intend to give up its nuclear weapons any time soon, three U.S. officials told NBC News — a finding that conflicts with recent statements by President Donald Trump that Pyongyang intends to do so in the future.

Trump is continuing to pursue a nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un even though the CIA analysis, which is consistent with other expert opinion, casts doubt on the viability of Trump’s stated goal for the negotiations, the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons stockpile. …

In an odd twist, a list of potential concessions by North Korea in the CIA analysis included the possibility that Kim Jong Un may consider offering to open a Western hamburger franchise in Pyongyang as a show of goodwill, according to three national security officials.

Er … suuuuuure. One has to get down several more paragraphs to find out just how reliable this assessment is considered internally:

The report, like nearly all intelligence products on North Korea, offered analysis at low or medium confidence — language intelligence agencies use to signal that analysts lack hard information to buttress their conclusions. …

“This is essentially some very smart analysts offering their very best guesses,” one intelligence official said.

A hamburger stand offer is among their “very best guesses”? That’s not exactly a confidence builder. It’s nonsense. It sounds like an internal joke that worked its way into a report as a hyperbolic  expression of skepticism. Especially after Trump’s abrupt cancelation last week, North Korea understands that Trump’s not doing this solely for a media opportunity. They’re not sending Kim Yong Chol to New York to discuss a McDonald’s franchise in Pyongyang.

Overall, though, it pays to remain skeptical about the prospects for a deal in this summit. We’ve already wrung one significant concession from Kim, the release of three American hostages, and perhaps a minor one in the show-closure of the damaged Punggye-ri nuclear testing facility. Kim arguably will get one from Trump simply by showing up to the summit. That may be all that anyone gets out of this meeting, which would still leave the US with three of its citizens back home alive and perhaps a better look inside North Korean leadership.

Certainly, it seems unlikely that Kim is looking for ways to deal his nuclear weapons away. And it’s much less likely that he’d agree to that than not, but we don’t need low-confidence analyses from the CIA to tell us that, either. We won’t know that to be the case until we sit down and talk with Pyongyang, though, a process which began a few weeks ago and still has to play out over weeks, months, and years, assuming it goes anywhere at all. There is a not-unreasonable concern that Trump might get too tempted by a deal that he won’t remain firm on verifiable denuclearization, but South Korea and especially Japan will not go willingly into a deal without it. And Trump has the Iran deal as an example of what can go wrong and a measuring stick against which his own performance will be judged, too.

If Kim won’t denuclearize, then we’ll find out soon enough. But let’s wait to see that first, rather than allow healthy skepticism to blossom into premature defeatism. It’s always better to jaw-jaw than war-war when possible. And for the moment, it’s still possible.