North Korea is not like Libya. And those who think that Washington should look to the North African nation as a precedent for either denuclearization or regime change in Pyongyang are heading either for confusion or disappointment.
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton’s endorsement of the “Libya model” – in which Muammar Qaddafi’s regime abandoned its longstanding quest to develop nuclear weapons in 2003 and was overthrown in 2011 following a Western military intervention – recently caused a diplomatic flurry, drawing a sharp rebuke from Kim Jong Un and a contradiction from President Trump. In reality, the two situations have little in common.
Bolton’s comments – as well as subsequent remarks about the “Libya model” from Vice President Mike Pence – minimize the differences between Libya under Qaddafi and North Korea under Kim Jong Un. The most fundamental distinction is that Libya never possessed nuclear weapons, though readers of some reports saying that Qaddafi agreed to give up nuclear weapons in 2003 might easily imagine that it did.
Libya pursued its weapons of mass destruction programs enthusiastically but ineffectually for years, and when it finally succumbed to the pressure of Western sanctions it was still far from becoming a nuclear power. Qaddafi thus abandoned his WMD ambitions in exchange for the benefits of restoring ties with the West, but he was not sacrificing either the protection or the status associated with a nuclear arsenal, and the deal did not pave the way for the destruction of his regime by Libyan rebels and NATO airpower eight years later.
In fact, a number of states have abandoned once-active nuclear weapons programs in the past 70 years, including Canada, Sweden, Brazil, Egypt and South Korea. However, only one nation has actually developed and then given up nuclear weapons: South Africa, which announced in 1993 that it had decided to dismantle its small arsenal four years earlier. In addition, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan inherited possession of Soviet nuclear weapons (but not the ability to launch them) when the USSR dissolved, and later returned the weapons to Russia. It is notable that none of these countries perceived a serious outside threat of invasion or regime change, although at least one observer at the time predicted that for Ukraine this state of affairs was unlikely to last.
Thus, North Korea giving up its nuclear arsenal after sacrificing so much to create it would be unprecedented. And when considering what rewards and guarantees might persuade Kim to denuclearize, U.S. leaders should not expect Libya to be a guide.
Nor should anyone imagine that a military effort to disarm or destroy the North Korean regime if it refuses to denuclearize would resemble the campaign that overthrew Qaddafi. In 2011, during the heady early months of the Arab Spring, mostly-Western airpower protected Libyan rebels from being crushed by regime forces and then enabled them to win the ensuing civil war in a seven-month effort that cost the United States just a few billion dollars and no U.S. servicemembers’ lives. Libya was a small country with a relatively fragile regime facing considerable internal opposition, and it had virtually no ability to strike back at its foreign enemies. In contrast, North Korea’s population is almost four times as large as Libya’s, its regime and its huge army are well-entrenched, and it could inflict enormous damage beyond its borders with either conventional or nuclear weapons even without the ability to reach the continental United States with a ballistic missile.
Where, then, should we look for a better analogy for the denuclearization effort with North Korea? A more relevant precedent would be the 2015 nuclear deal that froze Iran’s nuclear weapons program, from which the United States officially withdrew in early May. Unlike Libya, Iran was on a path to being able to build a significant nuclear arsenal, and like North Korea it had good reason to think that doing so might provide insurance against superpower attack. Negotiating the Iran nuclear deal was a long process in which both sides had to settle for less than they wanted in order to strike a deal. It would be naïve to expect that North Korea will be more willing to sacrifice a real nuclear arsenal than Iran was to relinquish the prospect of a hypothetical one.
Karl P. Mueller is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.