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This is why North Korea reacted so strongly to Bolton’s mention of the ‘Libya model’

People watch a TV screen showing file footage of President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul on May 16. (AP)

Editor’s note:  On Thursday, President Trump appeared to position the U.S. along different lines. In a meeting at the White House with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump said “The Libya model isn’t a model we have at all” for North Korea, calling a negotiated settlement with North Korea  “a much different deal.” But Trump also commented that “the model, if you look at that model with Gaddafi, that was a total decimation….We went in there to beat him. Now, that model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely.”  

On Wednesday, North Korea warned the Trump administration that it might walk away from the planned June 12 summit in Singapore if the United States did not stop talking about a “Libya mode of nuclear abandonment.” North Korea’s statement seems to be a response to national security adviser John Bolton’s comments that the “Libya model” of nuclear disarmament would be a good precedent for the talks.

I asked Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oslo who wrote a book on the Libyan and Iraqi nuclear programs, to explain why the Libya analogy has become a stumbling block for diplomacy between the United States and North Korea.

ES: What is the “Libya model” John Bolton mentioned?

MBH: In December 2003, Libya decided to abandon its nuclear weapons program in return for the lifting of economic sanctions and reintegration into the international community. As I showed in my book, Libya had a deeply flawed nuclear program that had failed to produce any tangible results. Today, the Libya model is widely seen as an exchange of a nuclear weapons program in return for lifting sanctions or other economic incentives. So why is this model so infuriating?

Even Libyans disliked the so-called Libya model. Many officials in Moammar Gaddafi’s regime resented this deal, even if they supported the broader policy that underpinned this decision. Libyan officials bitterly complained that they did not receive the rewards — economic and military — they believed the United States and the United Kingdom had promised them during the negotiations.

It also took longer to lift U.S. sanctions than the Libyans had anticipated. They felt cheated, but also humiliated by the way in which their decision was portrayed abroad — particularly claims that the Libyans did this because they were frightened by Saddam’s capture or, as Bolton claimed in 2004, forced to come clean by the revelation of BBC China, a cargo ship carrying components for the Libyan nuclear weapons program. The Libyans had offered to abandon nuclear weapons repeatedly while the U.S. and the U.K. insisted on an incremental approach, returning to the weapons issue after other issues had been settled — notably that Gaddafi accept responsibility for the terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 103 at Lockerbie, which killed 270 people.

Why North Korea succeeded at getting nuclear weapons — when Iraq and Libya failed

While the Libyan example was initially held up as a model for other cases, notably North Korea, Syria and Iran, it soon lost its appeal. One reason is that, as the North Korean statement of May 16 noted, this model demands disarmament first, compensation afterwards. Given what happened in Libya and now Iran, few states would be willing to trust that the promised rewards will materialize.

ES: Why doesn’t the Libya model work for North Korea?

MBH: Perhaps the simplest and biggest reason North Korea doesn’t like the Libya model is what happened to the Gaddafi regime: In 2011, it was toppled by a domestic uprising and a NATO-led coalition. Libya had given up its nuclear weapons program because the Gaddafi regime calculated that its survival did not depend on acquiring these weapons. That’s also why Libya never really made the nuclear program a top priority, as my research demonstrates.

In contrast, Kim Jong Un has consistently made acquiring nuclear weapons and their means of delivery his top priority.

So unlike Libya at the time of its nuclear disarmament deal, North Korea is already a nuclear power, complete with ICBMs. North Korea will not accept being placed in the same category as Libya. Nor will it accept being treated the way Libya was treated. Pyongyang does not want to be seen as being forced into these talks, whether by military threats or economic sanctions, and stresses that it will not come to the negotiating table to make unilateral concessions. Crucially, the North Korean statement issued on May 16 makes clear that Pyongyang is not prepared to fully dismantle its nuclear weapons program or capabilities. While the Trump administration has not yet provided a consistent or coherent definition of denuclearization, it is clear that the Libyan model will not apply.

ES: Why is talk of the “Libya model” apparently making North Korea mad enough to threaten to pull out of the talks?

MBH: Mentioning the Libya model was a clear provocation on John Bolton’s part. Indeed, on Wednesday, the White House downplayed Bolton’s comments.

The provocation worked because the North Koreans have consistently pointed to Libya as what they don’t want. North Korea recognizes that Bolton’s reference to the Libya model risks setting President Trump’s expectations at a completely unrealistic level, and that this could set a trap for them in the upcoming talks.

Declaring its view on the “Libya model” also provides North Korea with the opportunity to exploit the differences within the Trump administration on how to define and operationalize denuclearization, while setting out its own key terms and red lines for the upcoming talks.

ES: Are there any other models besides Libya for how to approach the North Korea talks?

MBH: There are not very many models for giving up a nuclear program as developed as North Korea’s. South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons in preparation for the end of the apartheid regime, and quietly dismantled its own program before declaring this to the world. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan opted to discontinue their nuclear weapons capabilities. The post-Soviet cases are unlikely to inspire North Korea to disarm, as Russia violated the commitments to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty under the 1994 Budapest memorandum when it annexed Crimea in 2014. None of these earlier cases hold obvious parallels to the North Korean case.

South Korea has reason to be skeptical — and optimistic — about dialogue with North Korea

However, states have learned to live with new nuclear weapons states in the past. Arms control talks created stability and forums for dialogue between adversaries during the Cold War. North Korea’s recent statements suggest it is prepared to discuss the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. If the U.S. changes its focus from denuclearization to arms control, the Singapore talks could have substantial results.