Via the IJR. In reality, there is no “Libyan model” for North Korea no matter if you define the way John Bolton does or the way Trump and Pence do. When Trump and Pence say “Libyan model,” they mean the 2011 multinational effort to take Qaddafi out. They’re talking about regime change. The only way to avoid ending up like Qaddafi, they’re saying to Kim, is to disarm and liberalize. When Bolton says “Libyan model,” he’s talking about Qaddafi’s decision in 2003 to dismantle his nuclear program, allow in international inspectors, and ship the component parts to the U.S. for safekeeping. He’s talking about verification standards: Even if Kim agrees to disarm, we need much, much more than his promise. We need inspectors on the ground in North Korea, free to go where they want, and ideally Kim handing over his bombs and centrifuges.
Neither “Libyan model” will work. The Trump/Pence threat of regime change is a nonstarter and everyone knows it, for the simple reason that NK is already a nuclear state and Libya wasn’t. Any international effort to oust Kim would lead, at a minimum, to Seoul being blown to bits via conventional artillery. At worst it’s full-scale nuclear war. The only regime change that’s happening in North Korea potentially is a coup, and even that would be unbelievably dangerous. If Kim suddenly had reason to believe his generals were about to oust him, what incentive would he have not to order full nuclear release against North Korea’s enemies? The state exists for the glorification of the Kim dynasty; if the dynasty were about to fall, there’d be no reason for the state to continue, at least in Kim’s mind. The only thing standing between the world and cataclysm would be the loyalties of NK’s nuclear operators. Would they obey a launch order or follow the coup-plotters instead?
Bolton’s “Libyan model” won’t work either. In fact, it’s suspicious that he brought it up after the summit was scheduled. Libya, after all, carries very bad connotations for North Korea’s leadership. From last fall:
In recent talks, when Americans have asked whether any combination of economic and diplomatic benefits, or security guarantees, could induce Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons, the answer has been no. North Koreans invariably mention the former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. In 2003, when Qaddafi agreed to surrender his nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, Bush promised others who might do the same that they would have an “open path to better relations with the United States.” Eight years later, the U.S. and nato helped to overthrow Qaddafi, who was captured, humiliated, and killed by rebels. At the time, North Korea said that Qaddafi’s fall was “a grave lesson” that persuading other nations to give up weapons was “an invasion tactic.”
To Kim, the Libyan model of 2003 leads inexorably to the Libyan model of 2011. Disarmament is a sucker’s game, something that’ll win you the west’s gratitude and economic relief for a spell — and then, the moment you face a threat to your power, they’ll turn on you and send in their bombers. Bolton knows that the North Koreans feel this way, of course, in which case why’d he bring up the “Libyan model” in the first place? South Korea suspects it’s because, as an ardent hawk, he couldn’t resist trying to intimidate the North even at the price of imperiling the summit:
“There are several land mines on the way to the summit between North Korea and the U.S.,” said Chung Dong-young, who served as unification minister during the last progressive administration and is now a lawmaker. “One of those land mines just exploded: John Bolton,” Chung told YTN Radio.
Woo Sang-ho, a lawmaker in Moon’s ruling Democratic Party, agreed. “Bolton’s preposterous ‘Libya solution’ is a red light in North Korea’s summit talks with the U.S. and South Korea,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
Bolton was an outspoken skeptic of further diplomacy with NK before joining Trump’s cabinet and is no doubt deeply skeptical that the coming summit will work. His rhetoric about the “Libyan model” may have been his attempt to lay down a baseline for Trump more so than Kim: If the national security advisor is on the record as saying that a “good deal” means disarmament and inspections and U.S. possession of the NK program, it pins Trump down not to deviate from that line much by agreeing to a bad deal.
But Bolton’s demands directly contradict what North Korea wants from this summit, notes Jeffrey Lewis (and no doubt Bolton would agree). They want recognition, both as a world power and specifically as a nuclear power. It’s a prestige play. If Kim gave up his weapons, particularly after devoting decades of propaganda to building them up as a source of national pride, that prestige would vanish. *That* may be the only real risk of regime change to him — if he really did disarm under pressure from NK’s enemies, his military might be so disgusted with his weakness that they’d hang him from a lamppost.
For Kim, a summit with a sitting U.S. president is a tangible manifestation of these recognitions — and also a sign that North Korea’s nuclear program has done the job. Saddam Hussein? He abandoned his nuclear weapons program, but once the United States invaded, he was dragged out of his spider hole and hanged. Moammar Gaddafi? He, too, abandoned his programs of weapons of mass destruction. The United States provided air support to opposition forces seeking to overthrow him. Gaddafi’s convoy was hit with a NATO airstrike, then overrun by rebels who exacted brutal revenge. But Kim? He completed North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and as a reward, he gets a summit with the leader of the free world.
A summit accomplishes other goals for Kim, too. Although he’s hardly likely to embrace market-style democracy, Kim clearly wants Chinese and South Korean investment in North Korea’s economy — particularly to improve its infrastructure. (No doubt the Kim family will wet its beak a bit in the process.) That requires sanctions relief — or an erosion of the sanctions regime that can be weakened with exceptions and lax enforcement. Even if the summit with Trump goes nowhere, Kim is likely to find that he can continue to woo Seoul and Beijing as long as it seems he’s being reasonable.
Reading that, you can understand why Bolton floated the “Libyan model” despite knowing how it would be received in Pyongyang. Why not? Taking the “Libyan model” as a baseline will either force Kim to cancel the summit, ending his bid for international prestige at Trump’s expense, or to grapple upfront with the reality that the U.S. won’t accept half-measures like a solemn vow not to do any more nuclear tests. Either he hands over his weapons, which he won’t, or we lay aside this dead-end diplomacy business and get back to tightening the economic screws. Let’s not waste any more time than we have to on our almost certainly futile but understandable last-ditch diplomatic outreach.