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The North Korean nuclear challenge has lately become something of a diplomatic rollercoaster. Only a few months ago, Pyongyang and Washington were locked in an escalating war of words and increasingly confrontational military posturing – but today, their standoff has given way to a sequence of what look like major diplomatic breakthroughs.
Besides marking the first time a North Korean leader has set foot in the south since the end of the Korean War, the recent inter-Korean summit also yielded a joint statement announcing that both sides would initiate talks on formally ending the Korean War and “denuclearising the Korean peninsula”. Since the Trump administration has been very clear that denuclearisation is a prerequisite for any negotiations over the peninsula’s future, this has led to intense speculation about whether the north is actually serious about fully denuclearising, and if so, how that might be achieved.
Fortunately for those trying to find a way forward, including Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, there appears to be a useful model: the successful dismantling of Libya’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programmes in the early 2000s.
On the face of it, the comparison seems illogical. The North Koreans themselves view the Libyan experience as a cautionary tale: after NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 helped tip the civil war against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, a North Korean official openly stated that Libya’s WMD deal with the US had been used as “an invasion tactic to disarm the country”. Nonetheless, understanding the Libyan experience is an important part of getting to grips with the Korean issue – and the contrasts are more revealing than the similarities.
Libya didn’t decide to give up its WMD programme overnight. Gaddafi had for decades viewed WMD as a means of deterring foreign intervention, an important priority for a regime with a highly provocative foreign policy that (among other things) included sponsorship of international terrorism against the West. In 1986, Libya’s provocations even drove the US to the point of launching airstrikes.
But by the 1990s, the balance began to shift. Libya was hit hard by UN sanctions, and even as global oil prices fell, it failed to modernise its oil sector. As a result, unemployment rose and living standards declined. Gaddafi found himself under political pressure at home, and from the mid-1990s onwards, his approach to foreign relations began to change. He ceased his support for terrorism, and handed over the individuals suspected of carrying out the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. All this he did with a view to getting international sanctions removed, and encouraging the foreign investment he needed to revitalise the economy and quell domestic dissent.
It was these developments that made his decision on WMD possible. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s administrations made clear to Gaddafi that his WMD programmes were obstructing full re-engagement with the US, and when the Bush administration invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam Hussein, it seemed to spur Gaddafi along. Crucially, Washington also signalled to Gaddafi that its concerns over WMD could be assuaged through behaviour change, rather than the regime change that ousted Saddam. Tony Blair went further in 2006, assuring Gaddafi that the UK would come to Libya’s assistance if chemical or biological weapons were used or threatened against it.
So how does this story compare with North Korea’s? The differences are clear. Despite all international efforts, Pyongyang has developed and built an arsenal of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles; some of its missiles could hit the US mainland, and it has reportedly even miniaturised warheads with which to arm them.
This puts North Korea far ahead of Libya in 2003. When Gaddafi’s government negotiated its programme away, its lack of domestic scientific expertise meant it was nowhere near developing a workable nuclear device, despite significant nuclear material and technology acquisitions from abroad. Since the Libyans did not possesses any deterrent power in the form of their nuclear programme, they arguably had little to lose from negotiating it away. And while they did possess a sizeable chemical weapons capability, which was included in the disarmament deal with Washington, their overall negotiating position was relatively weak.
By contrast, Pyongyang’s existing nuclear inventory puts it in a much stronger position. Since Kim Jong-un appears to have a functioning nuclear deterrent at his disposal, it remains to be seen exactly what Pyongyang will be willing to give up. Is it possible, for instance, that North Korea might give up its weapons and delivery systems but perhaps retain the associated technical development infrastructure and the capability to reconstitute its programme should things go badly?
In short, Pyongyang’s negotiating hand is much stronger than Tripoli’s was, and the potential outcomes far more varied.
Improving relations with the US was central to Libya’s 2003 decision. Seeing Washington make good on its promises to lift UN sanctions once the Lockerbie suspects were handed over reassured Gaddafi, and by the time the WMD talks began, some confidence had been built up on the Libyan side. But today it’s North Korea, not the US, that most needs to shore up the other side’s goodwill and confidence. That much is clear from Kim Jong-un’s recent charm offensive, which marks a significant departure from his government’s past behaviour.
Washington has also been working on its relationship with the north, subtly at first and then more publicly. In mid-April, it was reported that the then-CIA director, Mike Pompeo, had made a secret trip to North Korea to meet with Kim Jong-un. Few details of that encounter have been made public, but it was clearly a way for Pompeo to scope out the diplomatic territory while limiting the risk of Trump losing face – an approach that surely will have resonated with the North Korean leader. Pompeo has since returned to Pyongyang as secretary of state and overseen the release of three US prisoners.
These developments are all positive, but real progress won’t be secured until a dismantlement deal is first negotiated and then actually implemented. Nuclear weapons have become an integral element of the Kim regime’s political legitimacy at home as well as abroad; since giving them up completely would put that legitimacy at risk, they won’t be handed over quickly. And as in Libya, if progress can be made on the nuclear issue, security assurances from the US will be critical to avoid slipping backwards.
Granting those assurances would pose challenges in itself. It’s difficult to see Pyongyang following through on denuclearisation without concrete preconditions. Again, there’s a parallel with Libya, where different stages in the disarmament process were met with incremental recognition by the US State Department to reward Tripoli’s progress. If the progress that suddenly seems possible in the North Korea case actually comes about, perhaps this is how it’ll be made.