The dominant conclusion among the North Korea analyst community is that Kim Jong-un will never give up his nuclear weapons because they are necessary to ensure his regime’s survival. Yet North Korea possesses a significant conventional deterrent capability. If Kim shifts his strategy to focus on other military capabilities to deter an attack, he can negotiate away his nuclear program in exchange for a massive payout in economic benefits. This would prove more beneficial in the long run for North Korea as the true existential threat to the regime is more likely to come internally than from an outside attack.
Deterrence by Punishment
The typical argument for why North Korea cannot give up its nuclear weapons is that the ruling party needs its demonstrated nuclear capability as a deterrent to ensure it does not face a forced regime change from a South Korean or U.S. attack. In a basic deterrence framework, this is deterrence by punishment. North Korea cannot stop the U.S. and South Korea should they choose to attack (deterrence by denial), but the threat of a North Korean nuclear response would be too devastating for South Korea or the U.S. to accept (deterrence by punishment).
A typical suggestion, then, is that the key to North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons is security guarantees, primarily from the U.S. Guarantees could take the form of a peace treaty to formally end the war, normalized relations, or a series of more incremental measures. But this will always be problematic as it requires trust. North Korea has no reason to believe that any guarantees or agreements will not be scrapped by a future administration or simply fall apart if tensions flare again. One need look no further than the collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework or the failure of the Six Party Talks. Though North Korea bears significant blame for these breakdowns, they nevertheless highlight how fragile the trust between the U.S. and North Korea can be. Furthermore, the recent trend in both U.S. and South Korean presidents withdrawing from international and bilateral agreements reached under previous administrations indicates that it would be foolish for North Korea to stake its long-term existence on any kind of paper guarantee.