Why Trump cannot apply the ‘Libyan model’ to North Korea

Asian powers seem aware of the hidden threats of the “Libyan model”.
Saturday 26/05/2018
Phased approach. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a meeting in Pyongyang, on May 9. (North Korean government)
Phased approach. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a meeting in Pyongyang, on May 9. (North Korean government)

US national security adviser John Bolton’s recent suggestion to follow the “Libyan model” to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear programme was perceived by Pyongyang as a “sinister” attempt to force on it a miserable fate like that imposed on Libya and Iraq.

The crisis threatened to cancel the meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Trump rushed to contradict his adviser’s point of view and insisted that the “Libyan model” was not the one he had in mind for North Korea. Trump reassured Kim that he would still be running North Korea following the nuclear deal Trump intends to strike with him.

Such declarations and counter-declarations and even the contradictory points of view inside the Trump administration can be taken as pre-negotiation manoeuvrings. What was more striking, however, was the use of the “Libyan model” as a pressure tool.

“Libyan model” may be shorthand for the type of pressure the Americans put on Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to make him abandon his nuclear programme in 2003. The second meaning of the phrase, however, may be wider in scope and include the entire Libyan regime’s experience with Western powers and its dire results.

By the end of his regime, Qaddafi had abandoned his confrontational policies with the West and become much more cooperative. Yet that didn’t, in the end, protect him and his regime from the Western interference that brought him down in 2011. Qaddafi was assassinated in a chaotic scene and Libya quickly crumbled.

At first sight, there may be something in common with Qaddafi’s regime in Libya and Kim’s in North Korea: They were both anti-Western. However, any commonality stops there. Libya’s nuclear programme was very limited and, unlike North Korea’s nuclear programme, did not reach weapon development capacities. Also, the power game in the Middle East and North Africa region was quite different from the one in the Korean Peninsula.

In the Middle East and North Africa, there were no major powers that could counterbalance Washington’s dominance and restrain Western policies towards the Qaddafi regime. Qaddafi remained persona non grata in Washington’s eyes even after he abandoned his nuclear programme. He was not invited to the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, a slight Qaddafi interpreted as Western ingratitude and a negative message unlikely to convince North Korea and Iran to abandon their nuclear programmes.

Different geopolitical dynamics are at play in the Korean Peninsula and they are important enough to put the brakes on any aggressive tendencies on the part of the United States and its Western allies towards Kim’s regime. Washington has a match there — China. It might be argued that it is in Beijing’s interest to reduce tension in the area by denuclearising North Korea.

China is all for defusing tension in the region but not to the point of allowing Washington to do as it pleases or to the detriment of Chinese interests.

In short, Asian powers seem aware of the hidden threats of the “Libyan model” and are not willing to let Washington clone that strategy in their zone.

For some “Arab power,” as well, the “Libyan model,” conjures up tragic lessons to be heeded. For them, the “Libyan model” is not restricted to denuclearisation programmes. In the Libyan experience, it is not possible to separate the fall of the Qaddafi regime in 2011 from its denuclearisation in 2003. Libya’s tragic fate embodies the “Libyan model” so much so that speeches by Arab leaders often include phrases like “we do not wish to become a second Libya.”

The years following Qaddafi’s fall have shown that Western powers, especially European ones, have paid a high price for destroying Libya. In the absence of a central authority in Libya, Europe has had to face waves of illegal immigrants crossing the Mediterranean. The Libyan chaos allowed terrorist organisations, such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, to thrive there. It was only a matter of time before terror struck at the hearts of European cities.

Western powers suddenly realised their security was contingent on quickly bringing peace to Libya. They scrambled to push the warring parties in Libya towards a negotiated solution. The Skhirat Agreement was a major step in that direction but remains contingent on gathering a consensus for its implementation among the various stakeholders in Libya. Even the Western powers remain divided about peace in Libya because of their conflicting interests there.

In post-revolution Arab countries, the “Libyan model” evokes bitter feelings of disappointment over the “Arab spring.” It brings to the surface the frustration created by the West’s double standards and unfairness in dealing with Middle Eastern issues. While the United States was adamant about denuclearising Libya, it was quite happy to close its eyes on Israel’s nuclear arsenal.