Revival of the Libyan model
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
North Korea has an aversion to the mention of the so-called Libyan model for denuclearization. After the United States and allies launched airstrikes in Libya in March 2011, North Korean foreign minister condemned the Libyan way of denuclearization as an “invasion tactic” meant to fool the North African state with a “sugary” promise of security guarantee and improvement of ties. Since then, Pyongyang has vehemently resisted Washington’s demand that it go nuclear-free in order to get rewards later.
In 2003, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi handed over nuclear materials and nascent technologies to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for economic integration with the West. In 2011, the West stepped in when a civilian anti-government movement broke out in Libya that led rebels to send Qaddafi on the run and later kill him. The tragic end of the Libyan dictator would naturally be a strong object lesson for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He must have promised himself to hold onto nuclear weapons no matter what — or face the fate of Qaddafi. Every time U.S. officials mentioned the Libyan denuclearization model, he would have visualized Qaddafi being pulled out of a ditch, where he was hiding, to be brutally murdered.
Washington had to be well aware of Pyongyang’s feelings about Libya. But the idea was raised by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton last April soon after he was appointed by U.S. President Donald Trump. His comment drew threats of withdrawal from further talks and a planned summit meeting in June by North Korea. After being embarrassed a bit, Trump put forward Stephen Biegun as his special envoy on North Korean affairs to take advantage of his relatively dovish stance toward North Korea. It seemed that Washington crossed off the Libyan option.
Yet recent reports suggest that the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February hastily came to an end due to the U.S. demand that North Korea more or less accept the Libyan model. Trump handed over a piece of paper to Kim, which called for a complete transfer of nuclear weapons to the United States, submission to inspections, an immediate ceasing of all nuclear-related activities, destruction of all the country’s nuclear infrastructure, and the transfer of all nuclear program personnel into different occupations. The documents clearly underscored the United States would not take any risk or leave any stone unturned.
Domestic affairs affect foreign policy. A significant change in a domestic political climate can have diplomatic ramifications. Would the Mueller report have any influence on Trump’s North Korean policy? Trump is now sure to run in 2020 and may even win. A U.S. president has a better chance of winning a second term. Only 11 of 44 presidents failed in their second bids.
Those prospects are beginning to affect international affairs. Trump is no longer in a rush to seek a deal with North Korea within this year. For his part, it could be more attractive to either strike a deal with North Korea next year in order to bring a first batch of its nuclear material to the United States or else to orchestrate an event to show off the U.S. ability to intercept an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile just a few months before the 2020 election. Like it or not, Kim Jong-un will have to deal with Trump for at least another 21 months or a maximum of five years and nine months. He could buy some time if Trump is ousted. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, another partner in negotiations, leaves office in January 2021. Kim Jong-un will have to face Trump one way or another.
Moon meets with Trump on April 11. He may plead for an easing of sanctions to speed up talks with North Korea, and, by doing so, put himself in an awkward situation. President Kim Dae-jung suffered a diplomatic humiliation after lecturing former U.S. President George W. Bush on his signature “Sunshine policy” on North Korea in March 2001, soon after he was elected president. The blunder was caused by Kim’s ignorance of Bush’s views on North Korea.
What if Moon ignores Washington’s tougher stance toward North Korea and demands an easing of sanctions? That would only deepen Trump’s distrust in his ally. Seoul too must put aside its eagerness to achieve something during Moon’s term and instead build North Korea policy with a longer perspective.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 2, Page 30