Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on a focused and important mission to rally the international community and convince very key players—like China—that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program is no longer something that can be ignored or pushed to the back burner. Unfortunately, Tillerson’s efforts may fall short due to events that occurred years ago in a completely different part of the world.
In December 2003—after nine months of back-channel talks and secret diplomacy between U.S. and Libyan officials—the Bush administration proudly announced that Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi agreed to give up all of his weapons of mass destruction programs and admit international inspectors into his country in order to supervise the program’s dismantlement.
The agreement with a hostile foreign power, led by an erratic leader who was an adversary of the U.S. for decades, was an unmitigated success from a nonproliferation standpoint. It’s what many experts describe as the best possible outcome the U.S. could achieve in North Korea.
Qaddafi signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Missile Technology Control Regime, handed over tens of thousands of requested documents, officially declared the extent of his chemical weapons program, and admitted U.S. and British inspectors into the country to begin the destruction of Tripoli’s unconventional capability. In exchange, Washington opened a diplomatic internet section for Libya, permitted nearly all commercial transactions between the two countries, and eventually dropped Tripoli as a state sponsor of terrorism.
President George W. Bush rightly hailed the accord as an example of what can happen when a rogue regime finally comes to its senses and upholds its international commitments. “[W]hen leaders make the wise and responsible choice,” Bush said, "when they renounce terror and weapons of mass destruction, as Colonel Qaddafi has now done, they serve the interest of their own people, and they add to the security of all nations.”
Fast forward seven years, and Qaddafi’s regime was overthrown by an opposition movement backed by the U.S. and its European allies with airstrikes, weapons shipments, diplomatic support, and intelligence assistance. Nine months after the operation commenced—a campaign that quickly transformed from a civilian protection mission to military-imposed regime change—Qaddafi himself was dragged out of a drainage pipe, tortured by his captors, and executed. Who can forget Secretary Hillary Clinton’s infamous quote, “we came, we saw, he died?”
For millions of Libyans, the fall of Qaddafi was the beginning of what they hoped would be a new era of pluralism, democracy, and economic growth after over four decades of authoritarianism. Unfortunately, the reality has proven to be markedly different; the words “anarchy” and “chaos” describe Libya far more accurately than “democracy” and “free markets,” a consequence of a “smart-power” strategy that has been drilled into the minds of the foreign policy elite over the last decade.
Dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, however, took the exact opposite lesson from the experience: The west isn’t to be trusted, even if you agree to do something as significant as negotiate away your weapons of mass destruction.
It’s not hard to see why the Kims of the world would view the Libyan experience as a lesson in what not to do. What the United States, Europe, and the U.N. Security Council are demanding of Kim is precisely what they demanded of Qaddafi over a decade and a half prior: disclose and declare his WMD programs to the international community, admit weapons inspectors into the country, and cooperate in the removal and destruction of those weapons until there is nothing left. Qaddafi agreed to those demands in 2003, granting access to American and British inspectors and signing up to the very international weapons protocols that hundreds of responsible nations already acceded to. And he did so on the assumption that all of this goodwill and cooperation would provide his regime with some breathing space, a new lease on life.
Obviously, those assumptions proved to be incredibly naive. Seven years later, he was dead, his favorite son was dodging an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, and his government was in the ash-heap of history. So it is not surprising Secretary of State Tillerson’s assurances that “we’re [the U.S.] not seeking a collapse of the [North Korean] regime, we are not seeking to find some excuse for an accelerated reunification of the peninsula” fall on deaf ears in Pyongyang, an isolated, paranoid regime.
The Trump administration rightly considers the specter of a nuclear-armed North Korea as a top foreign policy priority.
But if Kim Jong-un spurs U.S. offers to negotiate his nuclear program away, we shouldn’t at all be surprised that he made that decision. Kim doesn’t want to be the next Qaddafi. To put it bluntly, Washington hasn’t helped itself with its propensity to change regimes at the point of a gun. Rather than putting fear into the hearts of autocrats and dictators around the world, the strategy has done the exact opposite. In the case of North Korea, it’s convinced Pyongyang that making any deal on its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs with the U.S. runs the risk of being exposed later on.
The Trump administration, like previous administrations before it, is certain that there is still some way that the United States—working with its allies and partners in the Security Council—can offer enough carrots and sticks to pressure Pyongyang into completely denuclearizing. The White House may in the end find a miracle solution to a problem that has confounded multiple presidencies over a period of decades. Yet when dealing with Pyongyang, the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. At this late stage in the game, buying a little more time by working towards a freeze in the North’s nuclear development and a suspension on its missile tests may be the very best that Washington can do.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities