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The art of unraveling a potential deal

by Brahma Chellaney

Donald Trump’s planned summit meeting with Kim Jong Un is still days away but the American president has already stirred things up by warning the North Korean leader of “total decimation,” in the way Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi met a gruesome end, “if we don’t make a deal.” Even if that threat were to frighten Kim into agreeing to a deal, he has no assurance that Trump will keep his end of the bargain. Trump’s record, after all, attests to his proclivity to renege on commitments.

In fact, following Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, Kim appears to have got cold feet. This is apparent from Pyongyang’s change of tone, including new warnings to the U.S. and South Korea, thereby undercutting the White House hype over the forthcoming Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.

In the run-up to the most-consequential summit of Trump’s presidency, the president’s Cabinet members are also doing their bit to foolishly stoke up concerns. It was the neoconservative John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, who triggered an angry reaction from Pyongyang by saying that the U.S. wants to apply the “Libya model” to North Korea.

Bolton’s statement was clearly a provocation for Pyongyang. Kim had earlier cited the fate that Gadhafi and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein met when they renounced the nuclear-weapons option.

Indeed, just days after American forces captured Saddam from his dingy hideout, Gadhafi reached an agreement with U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration to dismantle his country’s nascent nuclear-weapons program in exchange for a promised easing of Western sanctions. That agreement proved his undoing, because it eliminated the potential capability that could have deterred the NATO-led intervention that ultimately deposed him.

When Gadhafi was captured, tortured and murdered by NATO-aided rebels, with a video showing him being sodomized with a knife before his execution, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exulted in a live TV interview. Her reaction to receiving that news on her cell phone was to rephrase Julius Caesar’s famous line after a decisive Roman victory in 46 B.C. (“veni, vidi, vici,” or “I came, I saw, I conquered”) as, “We came; we saw; he died.” Clinton then laughed and clapped her hands in apparent celebration.

Against this backdrop, Kim has viewed a nuclear deterrent as the way to escape Gadhafi’s fate. After assuming power barely two months after the Libyan leader’s killing, Kim made accelerating his country’s nuclear and missiles advances his top priority.

Indeed, when NATO launched its air war against Libya in 2011, a North Korean official said it showed that Gadhafi had been duped in the 2003 nuclear bargain with the West. More recently, a commentary published by North Korea’s state news agency in 2016 said that “history proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasure sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression.”

Yet, in the lead-up to the Singapore summit, Trump and Bolton have gratuitously referred to the “Libya model” in the specific context of North Korea. Mentioning the U.S. elimination of Gadhafi, Trump told reporters at the Oval Office, “That model will take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely. But if make a deal, I think Kim Jong Un is going to be very, very happy … I think when John Bolton made that statement, he was talking about if we are going to have problem, because we just cannot let that country have nukes.”

The imprudent references to the “Libya model” can only ensure that Kim will not make the same mistake as Gadhafi. North Korea’s nuclear negotiator and vice foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan, calling such references “highly sinister,” said the “world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq, which have met miserable” fates.

Meanwhile, another well-known neocon, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has caused misgivings in Japan and South Korea by suggesting that America’s focus is on eliminating North Korea’s nuclear threat to its homeland, not to its allies. “Make no mistake about it: America’s interest here is preventing the risk that North Korea will launch a nuclear weapon into L.A. or Denver or into the very place we’re sitting here this morning,” Pompeo said in a TV interview from Washington.

This implies that the main U.S. objective is to eliminate North Korea’s long-range missile capability. A deal that allows Pyongyang to retain its short- and medium-range nuclear delivery capability will leave regional allies in the lurch.

Such a scenario cannot be ruled out. After all, the U.S. has always focused on forestalling threats to its own security even if its regional friends are left at the receiving end. For example, the U.S. has tolerated the fast-growing nuclear arsenal of Pakistan — one of the largest recipients of American aid in this century — because its nuke capability is subregionally confined.

The U.S. has given no hint as to what concessions it might be willing to make to secure a deal with Kim. Yet the U.S. has publicized unreasonable demands that North Korea is unlikely to accept. For example, Bolton said Pyongyang will have to surrender its entire nuclear program before the U.S. relaxes economic sanctions.

Pyongyang has made it clear that, to preclude a bait-and-switch approach that ensnared Gadhafi, a deal must involve a phased process, with each side making reciprocal concessions in stages. To try and overcome Pyongyang’s stubbornness, U.S. negotiations have suggested a partial surrender up front of nuclear delivery vehicles (and their components and blueprints), especially the Hwasong-15 and Hwasong-14 ballistic missiles. These two supposedly intercontinental-range systems were tested last year.

It is doubtful Pyongyang will countenance a partial surrender demand because it reeks of the U.S. nuclear bargain with Libya. Gadhafi did not have nuclear weapons like North Korea, but he sealed his fate when he handed Libya’s uranium-enrichment centrifuge components and nuclear weapons blueprints to the U.S.

More fundamentally, it appears odd that the Trump administration does not recognize the contradiction between wanting to blow up the Iran nuclear deal and, at the same time, pressing North Korea to sign a nuclear deal. It is also strange that Trump and Bolton do not seem to understand that, by raking up the “Libya model,” they are undermining the prospect of a North Korea deal.

At a time when even U.S. allies are finding it difficult to rely on an unpredictable and capricious Trump administration, Kim’s strategy will likely seek to safeguard his nuclear “crown jewels” until a comprehensive peace and denuclearization accord is reached — an agreement he wants with reciprocal obligations, including South Korea coming out of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and the U.S., China and Russia committing not to introduce or threaten to use nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. Such a complex accord can be implemented only in a lengthy process.

If no deal emerges next month, Trump ought to write a sequel to his 1987 book “The Art of the Deal” with the title,”The Art of Unmaking a Potential Deal.”

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist..