What's this 'Libya model' North Korea is so angry about?

Former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in the Belarus capital Minsk on Nov. 3, 2008. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

If you’re serious about peace and denuclearization, maybe don’t mention Libya. That appears to be the message North Korea had for the United States on Wednesday when it postponed talks with South Korea and threatened to cancel the Kim-Trump summit on June 12.

Apart from joint air force drills taking place in South Korea, North Korea appeared especially dismayed by suggestions from National Security Adviser John Bolton that a Libya-style solution could work with North Korea.

“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.

The world, North Korea went on to say, “knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq which met miserable fates.” (The former leaders of Iraq and Libya, Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi, were both killed or executed.)

North Korea appears to have taken offence at Bolton’s suggestion in late-April that Libya could serve as a role model for convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. Bolton has not implied (publicly) that the “Libya model” would include regime change in North Korea, instead he has emphasized the need to build trust and verify any denuclearization efforts in an interview with CBS.

“What we want to see from them is evidence that it’s real and not just rhetoric,” Bolton told the network in April. “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,” he said.

So, regardless of whether Libya can serve as a role model for North Korea, how did the United States convince Gadhafi in 2003 and 2004 to give up his early-stage nuclear weapons program? The answer, it appears, depends on whom you’re asking.

The Bush administration has framed Libya’s move as a direct repercussion of the 2003 U.S.-led Iraq invasion and intelligence operations to cut off delivery routes for Libya’s nuclear weapons program. In an interview with CNN, Gadhafi himself said that the toppling of the Saddam-regime in Iraq may have impacted his decision to give up the program.

“In word and action, we have clarified the choices left to potential adversaries,” then-U.S. 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 be trying to use success in Libya to defend his Iraq legacy. Gadhafi’s concessions, wrote Brookings foreign policy analyst Martin Indyk in early 2004, were mostly linked to the country’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 Gadhafi few choices.

Gadhafi’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,” he wrote.

Multiple reports suggest that Gadhafi’s willingness to negotiate an end to his nuclear weapons program were 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 PanAm flight 103 in 1988 — a U.S. condition for any further talks. Overall, 270 people died in the attack for which Gadhafi ultimately 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 international inspectors — the sort of measures Bolton was referring to in his CBS interview.

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

In this Dec. 10 2007 file photo, then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, greets then Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace, in Paris. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

“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 so-called Arab Spring began in 2011, however, Sarkozy was among the leaders behind a military intervention in Libya that helped topple Gadhafi — a scenario that would have been hard to imagine had Libya been in control of nuclear weapons at the time. The former Libyan leader was later killed by rebel forces.

While Bolton may have referred to the events in 2003 when talking about the “Libya model,” what North Korea likely understood was the final episode that unfolded in 2011.

His remarks, North Korea said on Wednesday, sounded “awfully sinister” to Pyongyang.

Read more: 

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

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