“As a person involved in the U.S. affairs, I cannot suppress my surprise at such ignorant and stupid remarks gushing out from the mouth of the U.S. vice president,” Choe Son Hui, a North Korean vice foreign minister, had said hours earlier.
The remarks came after Pence brought up Libya as an example of North Korea’s possible fate in a Fox News interview Monday, even though similar comments by Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, and Trump himself had previously drawn ire in Pyongyang.
“As the president made clear, this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal,” Pence told Fox News. Using almost the same words, Trump stressed last week that the example of Libya showed “what will take place if we don’t make a deal.”
Both were referring to the capture and killing of former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi by rebel forces in 2011. The references were apparently meant as a warning to North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
But a closer look at history reveals that Libya may be the worst example Pence or Trump could have chosen — and could have contributed to the renewed escalation of tensions in recent days. The North African nation chose to voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and to comply with Western conditions — but the United States and Europe later helped topple the Gaddafi regime anyway. It’s easy to see why Pyongyang was becoming more agitated the more Washington brought up Libya.
The George W. Bush administration framed Libya’s denuclearization move as resulting directly from the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq 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 Saddam 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,” then-President 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 Institution 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. 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.
Multiple reports suggest 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 ultimately acknowledged responsibility in 2003, even though he maintained 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.
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 France’s then-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 — a scenario that would have been hard to imagine had Libya been in control of nuclear weapons at the time.
This post was first published May 17. It was updated May 24.