There may be indications North Korea is finally getting serious about giving up its nuclear arsenal in order to improve the lives of its citizens.
U.S. intelligence officials have long doubted the sincerity of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his representatives when it comes to abandoning their nuclear capabilities, but CIA Director Gina Haspel said Monday there may be reason for hope.
"There does seem to be a suggestion that Kim Jong Un, Chairman Kim, understands and wants to take steps to improve the economic plight of the North Korean people," Haspel told an audience at the University of Louisville, her first public appearance since being confirmed as the spy agency's director in May.
Haspel reaffirmed the long-standing U.S. intelligence view that North Korean officials see the country's nuclear weapons program as "essential to their regime's survival," noting that getting Pyongyang to change course will still be a tough sell.
"The regime has spent decades building their nuclear weapons program," she said. "The North Koreans view their capability as leverage and I don't think that they want to give it up easily."
"We're certainly in a better place than we were in 2017 because of the dialogue we've established between our two leaders, the president and Kim Jong Un," Haspel added.
While U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed some optimism about progress with North Korea and about his relationship with Kim, U.S. intelligence officials have been largely skeptical.
Earlier this month, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told a conference in Washington that the U.S. intelligence assessment of North Korea's nuclear intentions had not changed despite some symbolic steps by Pyongyang in early June to destroy the entrances to some nuclear testing tunnels and to start dismantling some other equipment.
"Kim Jong Un sees nuclear weapons as key to the regime's survival and as leverage to achieve his long-term strategic ambitions," he said. "Absent mechanisms for the on the ground verification by inspectors, we cannot confirm that North Korea has taken any other denuclearization steps at this time.
"This North Korean commitment — and I put commitment in parentheses — to denuclearize presents a huge and critical challenge," Coats added.