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A “Libya model” for Kim?

May 18, 2018 | Expert Insights

US President Donald Trump has said that Kim Jong-Un could face a “Libya model” of action if he “doesn’t make a deal” on his nuclear weapons program. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was toppled by western-assisted forces seven years after he gave up his nuclear program.

Trump is scheduled to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in Singapore on June 12th.


The relationship between the US and North Korea has always been fractious. During the war between North and South Korea in 1950, US forces successfully intervened on behalf of South Korea. To this day, there are 28,500 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in South Korea as part of United States Forces Korea (USFK). Read more on the history of the peninsula here.

The North Korean nuclear program has been a source of concern for the US and the international community for decades. In 2017, it conducted over 20 missile test launches,  its sixth nuclear test, and test launched at least two intercontinental ballistic missiles. US President Trump has taken an aggressive stance while countering North Korea. Both Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump were locked in an extended war of words in 2017. Trump said that North Korea “will be met with fire and the fury like the world has never seen.” North Korea responded by announcing that plans were underway for it to strike Guam, a US territory.

However, since the beginning of 2018, global tensions with the isolated state began to ease. Pyongyang indicated that it is willing to re-establish diplomatic ties with the outside world. In April, US officials confirmed that then-CIA director Mike Pompeo had visited Kim Jong-Un in a top-secret meeting over Easter. On April 27th, North and South Korean leaders Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-In held a historic summit, the first in over a decade. The two nations announced that they have agreed to end the 60-year Korean War and signed the Panmunjom Declaration which agreed to denuclearise North Korea. Read more on the meeting here.


Libya gave up its nuclear program in 2004 in return for relief from sanctions. Leader Muammar Gaddafi surrendered his nuclear weapons, allowed the country’s uranium centrifuges to be shipped out to the US, and allowed UK, US, and IAEA inspectors to access the sites. However, in 2011, NATO-backed forces helped Libyan rebels topple the Gaddafi regime. Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebel forces the same year.

John Bolton, who was part of the Bush regime that brokered Gaddafi’s disarmament deal, was against the agreement. He believed that only US officials should have been involved in the deal. He had characterised Libya as a “rogue state” beyond President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” which included North Korea. Bolton has privately advocated for regime change in Iran and is known for his hard-line policies on Iraq and Libya.


Earlier this week, the future of the Kim-Trump summit came into question when North Korea cancelled a meeting with South Korean officials after joint military drills between South Korea and the US. US and South Korea maintained that the drills were scheduled and entirely defensive. Pyongyang had not protested to similar drills earlier the same month. Read more here.

North Korean vice foreign minister Kim Kye-Gwan has now reacted to comments by US National Security Advisor John Bolton. Bolton recently said that the United States is looking at a “Libya model” to denuclearise North Korea. Shortly after, Kim Kye-Gwan said, “If the US is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue.” “(The) world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq which have met miserable fate,” he added, additionally noting Pyongyang’s feelings of “repugnance” towards Bolton.

Soon after these comments were made, Trump assured Kim Jong-Un that he would have “protections” if he made the deal. “In Libya we decimated that country,” he said, apparently referring to the 2011 NATO action. “There was no deal to keep Gaddafi… The Libyan model was a much different model,” Mr. Trump said in the oval office. However, he cautioned, “that model would take place if we don’t make a deal.”

Recent events are not the only potential problems leading up to the summit. It has been pointed out that “denuclearisation” may mean different things to both sides, which could complicate the talks this June. To Trump and his allies, denuclearisation means the handing over of all nuclear weapons and missile systems, as well as allowing inspections to check the development of such weapons. On the other hand, to Pyongyang, this may mean mutual disarmament, commentators have observed.

Besides the difficulty of coming to a mutual agreement on what “denuclearisation” would entail, analysts have noted that enforcement could be another difficulty. “Permanent dismantlement is almost impossible to achieve,” said Suh Kune-Yull, nuclear engineering expert from Seoul National University. It is currently uncertain whether North Korea would be willing to open up to international inspection and reveal the details of its nuclear arsenal. “Unlike Trump, Kim is in this for the long game,” Suh noted. Additionally, given North Korea’s advanced stage of nuclear development, US plans for “permanent, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” or PVID may not be possible.


Recent events on the Korean Peninsula have been almost unprecedented. The North Korean regime has in recent months been open to establishing diplomatic ties. Some analysts believe that international sanctions have had a severe impact on the North Korean economy. South Korean President Moon Jae-In stated in April that Pyongyang had agreed to “complete denuclearisation” that was not dependant on the withdrawal of US troops from the peninsula.

In April, it was announced that North Korea was closing down its only nuclear test site in Punggye-ri. Recent reports have stated that there is evidence that buildings on the site have been demolished, however, several important buildings are still intact, and no tunnel entrances have been permanently blocked.


Our assessment is that in the past week, Pyongyang has dropped its more conciliatory stance with Washington and Seoul. It is likely that Pyongyang wants to enter the negotiations from a position of strength. As stated previously, we feel that North Korea may also be under pressure from the Chinese to end joint exercises and withdraw US troops. We believe that significant progress could be made this year. However, if Kim Jong-Un believes that there is a threat of regime change, this could change. North Korea may be a far more dangerous adversary than Libya was, and it may be prudent to remember that Pyongyang has successfully completed six nuclear tests.