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Libya: The Forgotten Reason North Korea Desperately Wants Nuclear Weapons

Ted Galen Carpenter

The United States and its allies continue to cajole and threaten
North Korea to negotiate an agreement that would relinquish its
growing nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. The latest verbal
prodding came from President Trump during his joint press
conference with South Korean president Moon Jae-in. Trump urged Pyongyang to “come to the
negotiating table,” and asserted that it “makes sense
for North Korea to do the right thing.” The “right
thing” Trump and his predecessors have always maintained, is
for North Korea to become nonnuclear.

It is unlikely that the DPRK will ever return to nuclear
virginity. Pyongyang has multiple reasons for retaining its nukes.
For a country with an economy roughly the size of Paraguay’s,
a bizarre political system that has no external appeal, and an
increasingly antiquated conventional military force, a
nuclear-weapons capability is the sole factor that provides
prestige and a seat at the table of international affairs. There is
one other crucial reason for the DPRK’s truculence, though.
North Korean leaders simply do not trust the United States to honor
any agreement that might be reached.

For a country with an
economy roughly the size of Paraguay’s, a bizarre political system
that has no external appeal, and an increasingly antiquated
conventional military force, a nuclear-weapons capability is the
sole factor that provides prestige and a seat at the table of
international affairs.

Unfortunately, there are ample reasons for such distrust. North
Korean leaders have witnessed how the United States treats
nonnuclear adversaries such as Serbia and Iraq. But it was the U.S.-led intervention in Libya in
2011 that underscored to Pyongyang why achieving and retaining a
nuclear-weapons capability might be the only reliable way to
prevent a regime-change war directed against the DPRK.

Partially in response to Washington’s war that ousted
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the spring of 2003, ostensibly
because of a threat posed by Baghdad’s “weapons of mass
destruction,” Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi seemed to
capitulate regarding such matters. He signed the Nuclear
Nonproliferation Treaty in December of that year and agreed to
abandon his country’s embryonic nuclear program. In exchange,
the United States and its allies lifted economic sanctions and
pledged that they no longer sought to isolate Libya. Qaddafi was
welcomed back into the international community once he relinquished
his nuclear ambitions.

That reconciliation lasted less than a decade. When one of the
periodic domestic revolts against Qaddafi’s rule erupted
again in 2011, Washington and its NATO partners argued that a
humanitarian catastrophe was imminent (despite meager evidence of that scenario), and
initiated a military intervention. It soon became apparent that the
official justification to protect innocent civilians was a cynical
pretext, and that another regime-change war was underway. The
Western powers launched devastating air strikes and cruise-missile
attacks against Libyan government forces. NATO also armed rebel
units and assisted the insurgency in other ways.

Although all previous revolts had fizzled, extensive Western
military involvement produced a very different result this time.
The insurgents not only overthrew Qaddafi, they captured, tortured
and executed him in an especially grisly fashion.
Washington’s response was astonishingly flippant. Secretary
of State Hillary Clinton quipped: “We came, we saw, he
died.”

The behavior of Washington and its allies in Libya certainly did
not give any incentive to North Korea or other would-be nuclear
powers to abandon such ambitions in exchange for U.S. paper promises for normal relations. Indeed,
North Korea promptly cited the Libya episode as a reason why it
needed a deterrent capability—a point that Pyongyang has
reiterated several times in the years since Muammar el-Qaddafi
ouster. There is little doubt that the West’s betrayal of
Qaddafi has made an agreement with the DPRK to denuclearize
even less attainable than it might have been otherwise. Even some U.S. officials concede that the Libya
episode convinced North Korean leaders that nuclear weapons were
necessary for regime survival.

The foundation for successful diplomacy is a country’s
reputation for credibility and reliability. U.S. leaders fret that
autocratic regimes—such as those in Iran and North
Korea—might well violate agreements they sign. There are
legitimate reasons for wariness, although in Iran’s case, the
government appears to be complying with its obligations under the Joint
Comprehensive Plan of Action that Tehran signed with the United
States and other major powers in 2015—despite allegations
from U.S. hawks about violations.

When it comes to problems with credibility, though, U.S. leaders
also need to look in the mirror. Washington’s conduct in Libya was
a case of brazen duplicity. It is hardly a surprise if North Korea
(or other countries) now regard the United States as an
untrustworthy negotiating partner. Because of Pyongyang’s other
reasons for wanting a nuclear capability, a denuclearization accord
was always a long shot. But U.S. actions in Libya reduced prospects
to the vanishing point. American leaders have only themselves to
blame for that situation.

Ted Galen
Carpenter
, a senior fellow in defense and foreign-policy
studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the
National Interest, is the author or coauthor of ten books,
including
The
Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South
Korea