The much-heralded summit between the United States and North Korea has entered a state of uncertainty; you don’t know whether it’s off or on again until you check at any given moment. Invitations have been accepted, canceled, and re-accepted; letters have been sent; tweets have been shouted into the atmosphere.
Right now, it appears to be back on again. But many observers fear a return to last fall’s mano a manoconfrontation between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with war a real possibility. If that happens, the blame will mostly fall on the Trump administration. The dangerous language coming out of the White House — especially discussion of a “Libya model” for the talks — has left the North Koreans angry and upset. To Pyongyang, that language is an implicit threat — and a sign that the United States can’t be trusted.
Enough has occurred to justify a meeting. North Korea has destroyed its underground nuclear test site, released three American prisoners, held two positive summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and invited then-CIA Director, now-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang.
Moreover, the North Koreans don’t want the summit to flop. For Pyongyang, it would be relatively simple to affirm the general objective of denuclearization, specify a few deliverables, and detail a follow-up diplomatic process to discuss elimination of the North’s nuclear arsenal. How far and fast the two governments then would go is anyone’s guess. Still, such a result would be worth the effort, simultaneously dampening tensions, constraining the North’s threatening behavior, and, most important, creating an opportunity for further phased reforms.
But the biggest obstacle has been the talk of Libya.
Administration officials complained about the North’s angry words and failure to show for a preparatory meeting in Singapore. But these came after the administration’s reference to the Libya model, backed by threats of military action if the North did not accept U.S. demands. Even Pompeo apparently blamed National Security Advisor John Bolton for the debacle.
Bolton, uncompromisingly hawkish and an experienced bureaucratic backstabber, publicly mused that the model for denuclearization should be Libya in 2003, essentially boxing up the North’s weapons and facilities and sending them to America.
Although the U.S. president apparently sought to downplay Bolton’s comments, he ended up threatening regime change and war. Amid a rather muddled discussion of Libya, Trump said, “If you look at that model with Qaddafi, that was a total decimation. We went in there to beat him. … that model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely” with Kim. The vice president followed with much of the same, announcing that the North could “end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal.”
It was a dubious example, since North Korea’s arsenal is far more complex, including completed nukes, as well as a substantial inventory of missiles and chemical and biological weapons. Libya also didn’t have a tempting target like Seoul within missile range.
But such language is also a rhetorical disaster — perhaps a deliberate one on Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence’s part. The Libya model lingers in North Korean minds. When I visited Pyongyang last June, I was informed that Libya’s experience illustrated why nuclear weapons are necessary — something that the North Koreans have repeated to many other visitors. Officials talked about eliminating America’s “hostile policy,” “military threats,” and “nuclear threats.” But the Libyan experience means that verbal assurances and paper guarantees will never convince the North to give up its weapons.
The North Koreans are well aware that history did not end with Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s relinquishment of his most important weapons. U.S. President George W. Bush announced in 2003 that Libya’s “good faith will be returned.” For eight years, the United States and Europe showered him with flowers and whispered sweet nothings in his ear. In one of the more infamous examples, U.S. Sens. John McCain, Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman supped with Qaddafi in Tripoli, discussing the possibility of dispensing aid to reward him for his opposition to al Qaeda.
But then a popular revolt broke out in 2011, and the West used the excuse of humanitarian intervention to launch a campaign for regime change on the cheap. The onetime Libyan strongman died a particularly public and gruesome death. Pyongyang was watching. As the North’s official news agency wrote, “‘Libya’s nuclear dismantlement’ much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as ‘guarantee of security’ and ‘improvement of relations’ to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force.” William Tobey, a member of the George W. Bush administration’s Energy Department, put it more simply: “They were bulldozed.”
The North has drawn the obvious conclusions. Last year, Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, explained that Kim “has watched, I think, what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have.” As for Libya, Coats said, the lesson is, “If you had nukes, never give them up. If you don’t have them, get them.”
Although the Wall Street Journal attempted to exonerate Bolton by explaining that he was talking about Libya in 2003, not 2011, the two Libyan experiences are inseparable in the minds of North Koreans. By surrendering his missiles and nukes, Qaddafi invited Washington to take advantage of his weakness. Even if that was not America’s plan from the start, Washington did not hesitate to oust its recent partner. In fact, Bolton, who had been involved in the Qaddafi negotiations, advocated that the U.S. military target the Libyan leader.
The Libya model reminded Kim of his military vulnerability once he abandons its best weapons — and Washington’s readiness to act accordingly. North Korea’s First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Kye Gwan was clear: “It is essentially a manifestation of awfully sinister move to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq which had been collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers.”
Talking about Libya represents precisely the sort of threats that Pyongyang’s nuclear force was intended to rebuff. Although Trump and Pence sought to apply the Libya model for nuclear negotiations against North Korea, that precedent was inseparable from the eventual application of military force against a disarmed country that not only failed to threaten the United States and Europe but also cooperated with them. Judging by this, Pyongyang has no reason to give up its strongest deterrent.
Another diplomatic disaster has further poisoned the waters. Assuaging the North’s concerns has been made more difficult by Washington’s termination of the Iran nuclear deal, followed by a set of far harsher demands for Tehran. Ironically, the Obama administration had hoped that the Iran agreement would attract Pyongyang. For instance, then-Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman said in 2015 that the Iran deal “might give North Korea second thoughts about the very dangerous path that it is currently pursuing.” Once the Trump administration tore it up, however, all bets were off.
Washington has been insisting that Pyongyang quickly disarm, before any benefits would be dispensed but after the latter’s leverage had disappeared. What would stop the United States from treating North Korea like Iran? That goes doubly, because the Korean agreement would have been bilateral and even easier for the United States to revoke.
Whatever happens with the summit, the Trump administration has become a major hindrance to nonproliferation. First, the president dropped an international agreement imposing intrusive inspections and controls on a suspected proliferator. Now, the administration has endangered talks with a country that deploys nuclear weapons and is developing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Trump has highlighted North Korea as the party more willing to engage in diplomacy, and much harder to demonize as an appropriate target of U.S. military action. He has demonstrated to South Koreans that the United States, under his administration, is the more obstructionist and dangerous nation. He has made it easy for Beijing to resist future U.S. requests, since he abandoned negotiation. The only certain loser from the president’s language and decisions is the United States.