Forget the Libya model
*The author is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.
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 North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and a contradiction from U.S. President Donald Trump. In reality, the two situations have little in common.
Bolton’s comments — as well as subsequent remarks about the Libya model from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence — minimize the differences between Libya under Qaddafi and North Korea under Kim. 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 nuclear weapons program 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 those ambitions in exchange for the benefits of restoring ties with the West.
But he was not sacrificing the protection or status associated with a nuclear arsenal, and the deal did not pave the way for his regime’s destruction by Libyan rebels and air power from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization 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 announced in 1993 that it had decided to dismantle its small arsenal four years earlier.
In addition, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan inherited the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons (but not the ability to launch them) when it dissolved but later returned them 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 this state of affairs was unlikely to last for Ukraine.
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 air power 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. service members’ lives.
Libya was a small country with a relatively fragile regime facing considerable internal opposition and 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 huge army are well-entrenched, and it can 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 a 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 would be more willing to sacrifice a real nuclear arsenal than Iran was to relinquish the prospect of a hypothetical one.