In the lead-up to the much-publicized Trump-Kim summit held in Singapore on June 12, the question of how North Korea could be convinced to de-nuclearize was often raised. Among the most prominent voices to weigh in were U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, Vice President Mike Pence and President Trump himself, each advocating for the “Libya model”—an adopted catch phrase that seemingly means different things to different people. Yet, no matter the definition, is Libya a good corollary for North Korea?
The Libya Model – conflicting messages
Bolton referred to the “Libya model” as the 2003 deal whereby longtime Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi renounced his nuclear ambition in exchange for the promise of sanctions relief, while Pence and Trump conflated the 2003 deal with the 2011 U.S. and NATO-led intervention. By portraying the “Libya model” as regime overthrow—if Kim Jong-un did not renounce his nuclear weapons—the case study on nuclear disarmament became a threat of invasion and regime change. North Korea, on the other hand, sees the “Libya model” as a justification for keeping and growing their own nuclear arsenal to prevent just such an overthrow by external forces. To them, the Libyan example is what happens when a country does give up a nuclear program, rather than what happens when it does not.
As a result of the Western intervention in Libya in 2011, North Korea has consistently pointed out that the overthrow of Gaddafi was a “grave lesson” for other countries with nuclear ambitions; the deal to remove Libya’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was, in hindsight, “an invasion tactic to disarm the country.” This presumes that the 2003 deal and the 2011 invasion were part of a long-term tactical plan, but there is no evidence to suggest this is true. Ultimately, none of these definitions are helpful, because Libya and North Korea have so little in common other than their pariah status.
One of these things is not like the other
The “quiet” 2003 negotiations over Libya’s WMD arsenal involved experienced intelligence officials across two different administrations, whereas the North Korea drama unfolded in a matter of months, with rapid fire bursts on Twitter, prime time cable news coverage and numerous public comments from President Trump. Spared the scrutiny of public opinion, the parties involved in the Libya deal were not subject to the politicization of the topic domestically and could make concessions and compromises out of the public eye, thus, increasing the likelihood of an eventual agreement. By contrast, much of the progression on talks with North Korea has occurred publicly through interviews with American officials and press conferences in the White House driveway. The name calling, taunts and boasts from both sides of the Pacific, make face saving much more difficult, and a final agreement less likely.
Despite the many differences in situation and style, the most important distinction between the two countries is this: Libya did not have nuclear weapons and North Korea does. Conflating the possession of a nuclear weapon with the existence of a nuclear program is both disingenuous and dangerous. Yet, the message has been repeated through the media and even at high levels of government. According to President Trump’s Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, the lessons learned from Libya are that “if you have nuclear weapons, never give them up…if you don’t have them, get them.” North Korea could not have scripted it any better themselves.
Guns or butter: Why Gaddafi agreed to give up his nuclear program
Under the burden of international sanctions, global isolation, rising unemployment, domestic discontent and the growing threat of Islamists within Libya, Gaddafi had plenty of reasons to consider trading a weapons program that had limited real utility for better relations with the West and an opportunity to extend his rule. While it serves North Korea’s interests to speculate on what might have happened had Gaddafi not given up his weapons program, it is counterproductive for Western leaders to do the same.
Had Gaddafi continued pouring millions into his furtive nuclear program, by most accounts, it would not have been capable of producing a weapon that might have deterred outside forces by the time of the 2011 Arab Spring. Moreover, even if Gaddafi could have developed a weapon, he still would not have had the means to deliver the warhead beyond the borders of Libya. By signing the WMD deal, he was sacrificing neither the protection nor the status of a nuclear arsenal—as he did not have one. Rather, he was abandoning an expensive nuclear boondoggle for improved ties to the West, and the deal in no way led to his ouster and death eight years later.
As North Korea has long demonstrated, a nuclear deterrent against an outside security threat is not the only deterrent a nation holds. By threatening the destruction of Seoul, North Korea limits most military options against it that seek to spare South Korea from significant casualties. This dynamic makes leaders on the Korean peninsula, and in Washington and Beijing, think long and hard about military options.
In Libya’s case, it seems reasonable to suggest that conventional arms acquisition could have equally deterred an external foreign threat—be it NATO, the U.S. or another state—from intervening in 2011. Rather than giving up his nuclear program, perhaps Gaddafi’s greatest mistake was deliberately underfunding his own military for fear that he could be overthrown by another domestic military leader. Decades of deliberate neglect left army officers dressed in civilian clothes, as uniforms could not be maintained, and what had once been a traditional army, had become more accurately a “lightly armed rabble.”
North Korea, by contrast, has one of the largest armies in the world, estimated to be 1.18 million, and the tacit protection of China. Even with many Soviet-era weapons, the North Koreans would be a much more formidable threat than Gaddafi’s army posed, meaning a Libya style intervention in North Korea would be impossible.
Using the “Libya model” as an example for denuclearization seems applicable only to weak military countries with nuclear programs—not nuclear weapons. Like Libya, example countries would not have protection from another nuclear power or UN Security Council member and would seek to integrate into the global community to avoid international sanctions, reduce the threat of domestic security concerns or satisfy a need to conform to international nuclear norms. This is not North Korea.
While there is hope that North Korea may genuinely denuclearize, it remains to be seen how interested Kim Jong-un is in joining the community of nations and ending his country’s long international isolation, without any perceivable broad domestic discontent to spur his action. If he does, it would be a remarkable outlier in the history of nuclear disarmament, as the list of countries that have developed and then abandoned nuclear weapons is comprised only of South Africa. Kim would be wise to reflect on Mahatma Gandhi’s assertion that tyrants seem invincible for a time, “but in the end, they always fall. Always.” Surely Kim would rather be F.W. de Klerk, than Muamar Gaddafi when that day comes.
Brian Choquette is currently a graduate student in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, pursuing a master’s degree in International Security Policy and is an intern at the EastWest Institute.