Could the decision to strike Syrian targets after a recent chemical weapons attack impact the planned landmark summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un?
It’s complicated. But one thing is certain: The strikes will serve as a stark reminder to North Korea of the 2011 U.S.-led intervention in Libya that ended in the gruesome execution of its leader.
Friday’s strikes, conducted together with France and Britain after Syria’s apparent use of chemical weapons on April 7, were the Trump administration’s second against Damascus after the White House ordered a Syrian air base targeted last year in the wake of an earlier chemical attack.
“Both sets of Syria strikes, last week and last year, prove that America is willing to attack anyone — anyone — who’s unable to attack America, but nobody else,” said Van Jackson, a North Korea expert and former policy adviser in the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense. “We’ve never done this kind of strike against a state with nukes. If Russia had done this we would’ve sent them a strongly worded letter, not cruise missiles.”
Jackson said the U.S. hoped these kinds of military attacks conveyed American resolve about its willingness to uphold “red lines” in general, and specifically against chemical weapons use, but noted that different audiences had different interpretations of the strikes’ meaning.
“I think the administration could make the case to North Korea that the Syria strikes show we fulfill our promises; we live up to our commitments. We drew a red line on chemical weapons use, and then defended the line,” he said. “The problem is simply that North Korea won’t interpret our actions as we wish for it to interpret them.”
Jackson said that for Kim, the strikes highlight a long-held belief — that nuclear weapons are all that stand between him and the end of his regime.
“Kim Jong Un looks at the Syria strikes and can only conclude that nukes are what separates him from Middle Eastern dictators,” Jackson said. “Without nukes, the U.S. would treat him like (Syrian leader Bashar) Assad, (executed Libyan dictator Moammar) Gadhafi, and (deposed Iraqi President Saddam) Hussein.”
Pyongyang, he added, “concluded long ago that the logic of force is what keeps them safe. Nukes are the ultimate guarantee.”
Kim announced in November that his country had “realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force” with the test of a long-range missile that experts say puts the whole of the United States in striking distance and, some say, has effectively limited U.S. options for confronting the North.
Jackson’s assessment of Kim and his nuclear arsenal echoed that of U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who told lawmakers last month that the North views its weapons as “the basis for its survival.”
North Korea has routinely pointed to U.S. military interventions as justification for its nuclear weapons program, citing in 2013 “the tragic consequences in those countries which abandoned halfway their nuclear programs” — an allusion, in particular, to Libya and Gadhafi, who was sodomized with a bayonet before being shot dead immediately after his capture in 2011.
Gadhafi agreed in 2003 to roll back his own decades-old nuclear program. In exchange, the United States and its allies lifted economic sanctions and pledged that they no longer sought to isolate Libya, and Gadhafi was welcomed back into the international community once he had relinquished his nuclear ambitions.
Unspoken in this deal was the belief by Gadhafi that by giving up his weapons of mass destruction, he would be shielded from the kind of conflict that resulted in Hussein’s ouster and ultimately his death.
“North Korea’s current regime is particularly aware of the Libya case, where Libya gave up its WMD program in return for being welcomed back into the international community, and later the United States supported the overthrow of the regime,” said Rodger Baker, vice president of strategic analysis for the global intelligence firm Stratfor. “That case continues to complicate any security guarantee that the North may accept.”
Now, with the planned Kim-Trump summit scheduled for some time in May or June, Friday’s strikes are expected to similarly weigh heavily on the mind of the North Korean leader.
“The Syria strike will simultaneously remind North Korea of the willingness to strike far afield and the willingness of the U.S. to strike to quash WMD use,” Baker said.
Analysts and observers are divided over whether the North will truly part with what it calls its “treasured nuclear sword,” although the U.S. has said it was told by the regime that it is ready to discuss the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” at the Kim-Trump summit.
Kim, according to South Korean interlocutors, has said that in exchange for giving up his nuclear weapons, he would request a U.S. affirmation that it would not attack or invade North Korea and will provide a security guarantee, as well as a promise to work toward normalized ties.
On Friday, the left-leaning South Korean daily The Hankyoreh, citing multiple anonymous sources in Washington, reported that, in exchange for denuclearizing, the North had asked the U.S. to remove its nuclear and strategic assets from the South, stop the deployment of nuclear and strategic assets during joint military exercises with its ally, guarantee that it will not make a conventional or nuclear attack, convert the armistice agreement into a peace treaty and normalize diplomatic relations.
That report could not be independently verified.
The North, for its part, has also faced questions about whether it will live up to any deal, having been found to have cheated on earlier agreements to rein in its nuclear and missile programs.
Demands aside, questions of credibility and trust — on both sides — will continue to linger as the talks approach.
“There is little room for trust either in Pyongyang or Washington,” said Stratfor’s Baker. “Both sides see the other as having abrogated previous agreements, and neither believes they can fully trust any assurances of the other. Any arrangement between the two will still include mistrust, but that is a political decision — how much mistrust is acceptable given the broader goals to achieve.”