North Korea’s statement Wednesday also made direct reference to Bolton

by Megan Specia & David E. Sanger

When North Korea suddenly threw a historic summit with the United States into question Wednesday, it cited — five times — the fate of another country and another leader, half a world away, as an example of why no one should trust American efforts to disarm another nation.

The country was Libya, and the leader was Moammar Gadhafi, who made a bad bet that he could swap his nascent nuclear program for economic integration with the West. That deal, executed by the Bush administration nearly 15 years ago, is a footnote to American histories of that era.

But it has always loomed large for the North Koreans.

The planned June 12 meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been regarded by disarmament advocates as an opportunity to end decades of animosity between North Korea and the United States.

But in the mind of Trump’s new national security adviser, John R. Bolton, who was an architect of the Libya deal, that is the model of how things should play out as the two leaders meet: Complete nuclear disarmament, in return for the promise of economic integration. Bolton said as much last weekend.

In issuing its threat to back out of the summit meeting, the North referred to Bolton’s comments, calling them a “Libya mode of nuclear abandonment.”

So why is the Libya model suddenly becoming a sticking point in the meeting between Trump and Kim?

What Happened in Libya?

In 2003, Gadhafi saw the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, and may well have concluded he was next. In a lengthy, secret set of negotiations with Britain and the United States, he agreed to voluntarily hand over the equipment he had purchased from A.Q. Khan, a leader of the Pakistani nuclear program. North Korea and Iran had also been customers of Khan, who was later placed under house arrest after his activities were exposed.

The Libya material was flown out of the country, much of it placed at an American weapons laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. When President George W. Bush announced the deal, he made a clear reference to North Korea and Iran when he said, “I hope other leaders will find an example” in Libya’s action.

What happened less than a decade later might be at the heart of what Kim appears to fear.

The United States and its European allies began a military action against Libya in 2011 to prevent Gadhafi’s threatened massacre of civilians. President Barack Obama acceded to arguments from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to join the European-led action.

But no one in the Situation Room debated what message the decision to turn on Gadhafi might send to other countries the United States was trying to persuade to relinquish their weapons, according to interviews conducted later with more than a half-dozen people engaged in the discussion.

The Libya intervention allowed anti-government rebels to put Gadhafi on the run, and months later they pulled him from a ditch and killed him. Since then, Libya has devolved into a dysfunctional state. And North Korea has taken notice.

North Korea’s Libya Fears

North Korea’s fear of meeting the same fate as Libya — or maybe more specifically its leader meeting the same fate as Gadhafi — has appeared to factor into North Korea’s thinking about its own weapons program for years. 

In 2011, after the United States and allies launched airstrikes in Libya, North Korea’s foreign minister said the denuclearisation of the North African nation had been an “an invasion tactic to disarm the country.”

After Gadhafi was killed, the narrative in North Korea became clear: Had he not surrendered his nuclear program, North Korean officials said, he might still be alive.

In 2016, shortly after North Korea conducted a nuclear test, its state-run news outlet, the Korean Central News Agency, made direct reference to Libya and Iraq. “History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasured sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression,” the agency said.

“The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programs of their own accord,” it said.

But North Korea was also clear to draw a line between itself and the two nations. Its statement on Wednesday said it was off base to suggest that the “dignified state” of North Korea could share the same destiny as Libya or Iraq, which “collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers.”

“The world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq, which have met miserable fates,” the statement said. The North made explicit reference to a homegrown achievement that Gadhafi never neared: It had already become a nuclear-armed country.

Unlike North Korea, Libya was not actually a nuclear weapons state. During inspections in 2003, the Americans discovered Libya had centrifuges that could be used to produce highly enriched uranium — fuel for a bomb.

“It is absolutely absurd to dare compare the DPRK, a nuclear weapon state, to Libya, which had been at the initial state of nuclear development,” the North Korean statement said, using the initials for the country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

North Korea has tested six nuclear weapons, and U.S. intelligence agencies believe it has 20 to 60 more, as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the United States.

What is the White House saying about the Libya model?

North Korea’s statement Wednesday also made direct reference to Bolton.

In his first televised interviews after becoming national security adviser last month, Bolton told “Face the Nation” on CBS and “Fox News Sunday” that Libya’s denuclearisation was what he envisioned when moving ahead with North Korea talks.

“We have very much in mind the Libya model from 2003, 2004,” he said on Fox. “There are obviously differences. The Libyan program was much smaller, but that was basically the agreement that we made.”

When a reporter asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, specifically about the Libya model and if the administration’s approach to North Korea would be the same, she backed away from Bolton’s comparison.

“I haven’t seen that as part of any discussions, so I am not aware that that’s a model that we are using,” Sanders said Wednesday. “There is not a cookie cutter on how this works.”