HONG KONG – The last remnants of Libya’s nuclear program were loaded onto an aircraft in 2009 and shipped out of the country, part of a U.S.-brokered deal with dictator Moammar Gadhafi to disarm in return for sanctions relief. Two years later, NATO-backed rebels brutally killed him.
The episode is still fresh in the minds of both North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and John Bolton, the new U.S. national security adviser. But the lessons they learned are very different, and that threatens to doom any talks between Kim and President Donald Trump.
On March 19, Bolton told Radio Free Asia that he hoped Trump would follow the Libya model in demanding that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons, and that it could be a “very short meeting” if Kim refused. But the North Korean leader has regularly cited Libya as an example of why he needs nuclear weapons — to deter a U.S. invasion.
“It is such an implausible demand of North Korea that you set yourself up for failure,” Lindsey Ford, director of political-security affairs for the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington, said of Bolton’s proposal. “If that is your negotiating strategy, I don’t see any path to success.”
Questions about the summit have only grown since Trump surprised the world this month by agreeing to meet with Kim after repeatedly threatening war if he didn’t halt his nuclear program. The two sides have yet to announce a date for the summit, and North Korea hasn’t issued an official statement acknowledging the meeting.
Kim made a surprise visit Monday to Beijing, Bloomberg News reported, the latest in a series of diplomatic power plays as countries jockey for the upper hand in the dispute over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Since then, Trump has shaken up his national security team. He nominated the hawkish CIA chief Mike Pompeo to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and last week named Bolton to replace H.R. McMaster. Both Bolton and Pompeo have publicly advocated regime change in North Korea, something Tillerson had said wasn’t a U.S. goal.
“The two most important people advising Trump on foreign policy are at the extreme end of what to do about North Korea,” said Mike Chinoy, a former journalist who visited North Korea 17 times and wrote a book about its nuclear program. “The danger is that Pompeo and Bolton say it can’t be solved diplomatically, and they are going to reinforce Trump’s most combative instincts.”
Bolton has repeatedly made the case for a preemptive attack targeting specific nuclear sites, most recently in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on March 1 titled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.” “The threat is imminent,” he wrote. “We should not wait until the very last minute.”
Just after Trump sent out a tweet announcing Bolton’s new role, he told Fox News, where he’d been working as a contributor, that “what I’ve said in private now is behind me” and “the important thing is what the president says and what advice I give him.” With Tillerson and McMaster gone, that advice is likely to reinforce Trump’s more hawkish instincts.
Bolton famously supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq. On the day that Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled from its pedestal in Baghdad in 2003, Bolton — who was undersecretary of state at the time — said regimes like North Korea’s should “draw the appropriate lesson.”
Bolton has a history of opposition to multilateral security and arms control agreements. In 2002 he used a U.S. intelligence claim that North Korea had covertly sought uranium enrichment technology to make a nuclear bomb to pull out of the 1994 Framework Deal reached under President Bill Clinton.
“This was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework,” Bolton wrote in his memoirs.
In his book, “Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis,” Chinoy chronicles how the regime restarted its nuclear program after an eight-year hiatus after the collapse of the Agreed Framework. If the framework hadn’t been agreed, North Korea might have had enough material for as many as 100 nuclear bombs by the time the deal collapsed compared with one or two, Chinoy said.
North Korea has repeatedly said it will only give up its nuclear weapons once the U.S. drops what it calls a “hostile” policy. South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo wrote this month that Kim wants to sign a peace treaty and establish diplomatic relations with the U.S.
Yet some analysts fear a further outbreak of hostilities is also possible if talks break down.
“Bolton has often counseled force where others options existed and where the risks are high,” said Robert Kelly, a political science associate professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University. “That Trump still did this sends a signal that he takes the use of force very seriously.”