The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump just contradicted Bolton on North Korea. What’s the ‘Libya model’ they disagree on?

Moammar Gaddafi, shown in 2008, gave up Libya’s nuclear weapons program in 2003 and was killed in a 2011 revolution. (Sergei Grits/AP)

President Trump contradicted his national security adviser Thursday on North Korea policy after an angry rebuke from Pyongyang over John Bolton’s comments. Bolton had recently suggested that Libya could serve as a model for persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

But Trump veered away from that idea, saying Thursday that “the Libya model isn’t the model that we have at all when we’re thinking of North Korea.” He added, “In Libya, we decimated that country. That country was decimated.”

With the prospect of a June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un under a cloud, Trump even offered reassurances that regime change is not on the agenda. In any deal with North Korea, Trump said, Kim would “be in his country; he’d be running his country.”

Nonetheless, the president also cautioned that the fate suffered by Libya shows “what will take place if we don’t make a deal.” Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebel forces in 2011 during the Arab Spring uprising. His government had voluntarily decided to give up its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

Trump’s remarks immediately raised doubts about whether he and Bolton had the same idea of what the “Libya model” really means. While Trump appeared to be referring to Gaddafi’s toppling in 2011, Bolton was referring to the need to build trust and verify any denuclearization efforts when he brought up Libya in a CBS interview last month. He didn’t imply, publicly at least, that the “Libya model” would include regime change in North Korea.

Bolton’s remarks, North Korea said Wednesday, sounded “awfully sinister.” Trump’s attempt at clarification on Thursday probably won’t sound any better to Pyongyang.

In his April interview with CBS, Bolton said, “What we want to see from them is evidence that it’s real and not just rhetoric. One thing that Libya did that led us to overcome our skepticism was that they allowed American and British observers into all their nuclear-related sites. So it wasn’t a question of relying on international mechanisms. We saw them in ways we had never seen before.”

What Bolton didn’t mention was that North Korea already had rejected a verification scheme based on the Libya model 10 years ago. In 2008, the United States proposed a verification process to Pyongyang that was based on inspection processes previously used in Libya. North Korea objected to two key elements of that plan: the taking of samples and visits to undeclared facilities.

Prior resistance to that plan and North Korea’s long-standing animosity toward Bolton may explain Pyongyang’s anger and its subsequent threat to cancel the upcoming summit.

“High-ranking officials of the White House and the Department of State including Bolton, White House national security adviser, are letting loose the assertions of a so-called Libya model of nuclear abandonment,” North Korea said in a statement on Wednesday.

The world, North Korea went on to say, “knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq, which met miserable fates.” (Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was hanged in 2006.)

Regardless of whether Libya can serve as a model for North Korea, how did the United States persuade Gaddafi in 2003 and 2004 to give up his early-stage nuclear weapons program? And why was the Libyan regime ultimately toppled? The answers, it appears, depend on whom you’re asking.

Democracy Post editor Christian Caryl says President Trump's new national security adviser is more capable than other officials. That's the problem. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

The George W. Bush administration framed Libya’s move as resulting directly from the 2003 U.S.-led Iraq invasion and intelligence operations that cut off delivery routes for Libya’s nuclear weapons program. In an interview with CNN, Gaddafi himself indicated that the toppling of the Hussein regime in Iraq may have affected his decision to give up the program.

“In word and action, we have clarified the choices left to potential adversaries,” President George W. Bush said when he announced the program’s dismantlement, indirectly referring to the Iraq War.

But analysts voiced criticism of the Iraq-Libya link at the time and suggested that Bush may have been trying to use success in Libya to defend his Iraq legacy. Gaddafi’s concessions, wrote Brookings foreign policy analyst Martin Indyk in early 2004, were linked mostly to Libya’s economic crisis after years of sanctions and mismanagement.

“The only way out was to seek rapprochement with Washington,” Indyk wrote. And while North Korea has long been able to rely on China, the United States was the dominant power in the Middle East in the early 2000s — leaving Gaddafi few choices.

Gaddafi’s search for allies and international rehabilitation ultimately led him to strike a more conciliatory tone with the United States, according to Indyk. “Fed up with pan-Arabism, he turned to Africa, only to find little support from old allies there. Removing the sanctions and their accompanying stigma became his priority,” the analyst wrote.

Reports suggest that Gaddafi’s willingness to negotiate an end to his nuclear weapons program was initially rebuffed.

When offering to give up the program in exchange for sanctions relief wasn’t sufficient, the Libyan leader looked for ways to settle his dispute with Britain over the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 — a U.S. condition for any further talks. Overall, 270 people died in the attack, for which Gaddafi claimed responsibility in 2003, even though he maintained that he had not ordered the bombing. To settle the conflict with Britain, Libya agreed to pay at least $5 million to the families of each of the 270 victims.

The settlement paved the way for the end of Libya’s nuclear weapons program and verification by international inspectors — the sort of measures Bolton was referring to in his CBS interview.

Four years after giving up his clandestine weapons program, Gaddafi appeared rehabilitated as he arrived in Paris for a five-day visit.

“If we don’t welcome countries that are starting to take the path of respectability, what can we say to those that leave that path?” said then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy, defending the visit against critics.

When the Arab Spring began in 2011, however, Sarkozy was among the leaders behind a military intervention in Libya that helped topple Gaddafi and led to his death — a scenario that would have been hard to imagine had Libya been in control of nuclear weapons at the time.

Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.

Read more: 

North Korea expands threat to cancel Trump-Kim summit, saying it won’t be pushed to abandon its nukes