Since the Korean ceasefire was signed in 1953, North Korea has continued to be a thorn in the United States’ side. Multiple diplomatic standoffs – including the 1968 seizure of the USS Pueblo and the 2003 North Korean withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) – have engendered distrust between the two states. The June 2018 summit between Kim Jong-un and President Trump, the first between a North Korean and American leader, was hailed as both momentous and insubstantial. It amounted only to vague promises with the specific details pushed off to be negotiated later. So far, results since this meeting have been mixed. While North Korea has made some overtures, such as the return of some soldiers’ remains, the United States should not expect North Korea to do what the late Gaddafi did and hand over the entire nuclear and missile program. Rather, the United States should expect North Korea to do whatever it can to preserve its new nuclear deterrent, and should be prepared for North Korea to go back on its word, as it is accused of doing so now, and has also done so in the past at the first sign of trouble.
The most important of the vague promises made at the summit was a commitment to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, as per the Panmunjom Declaration. The so-called “Libya model” has come up a good bit regarding denuclearizing North Korea. In December 2003 Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi publicly committed to disclose and dismantle all of his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, and subsequently allowed the IAEA to catalogue and remove nuclear materials from Libya. In 2005, after lifting sanctions previously imposed on Libya, President Bush suggested that Libya’s example of cooperation could serve as a model for North Korea and Iran. He claimed that Gaddafi gave up his WMD programs in response to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Ultimately, how and why Gaddafi gave up his (WMD) programs is not as important to North Korea as what happened to Gaddafi in 2011. Gaddafi’s regime was an early casualty of the Arab Spring. The no-fly zone and air strikes imposed in support of the Libyan rebels by the United States, United Kingdom, and France played a key role in Gaddafi’s demise. This vulnerability to Western intervention, due to a lack of a strategic deterrent against the West, is seen by North Korea as the consequence of the “Libya model.” To Kim Jong-un and North Korea, the “Libya model” means giving up one’s WMD deterrent now so the United States can overthrow the regime later.
Fear of Western intervention has been the root cause of North Korea pursuing its nuclear program with such vigor. President Bush declared the isolated state a member of the “axis of evil” in 2002, along with Iraq and Iran. The next year, the United States invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein on the pretense that the dictator was developing WMDs. To think that Kim Jong-un would, after witnessing the United States topple two dictatorships that have been historical antagonists, give up his nuclear weapons entirely without a fight is naive at best.
If North Korea gets scared and reneges on the promises made at the June 2018 summit, it would not be the first time. It took roughly six years for North Korea to fully accede to the NPT safeguards and inspections after it joined the treaty in 1985. Throughout the 1990s, the Clinton administration and North Korean leadership (first Kim Il-sung, and after 1994 Kim Jong-il) had gone back and forth looking for a diplomatic solution. North Korea was often reluctant to submit to inspections, but by the end of Clinton’s second term administration officials believed that a final agreement on reigning in North Korea’s missile program was close.
Almost as soon as the Bush administration came to office, the diplomatic climate froze over. In March of 2001, statements made by the administration suggested that while they were prepared to resume negotiations, the administration was questioning whether North Korea was fully living up to its agreements. Korean Central News Agency published a response vowing to “take thousand fold revenge” against the United States for its apparent policy reversal. Over the next two years, Washington and Pyongyang would go back and forth between threats and peaceful overtures, until in October 2002 when it was revealed that North Korea had a clandestine nuclear program in violation of its agreements.
Returning to the present day, in the months since the Singapore summit, North Korea has referred to the United States’ diplomacy as “gangster-like,” and has stated that it “regrets” entering into talks with Washington. Evidence has come to light that North Korea continues to work on new missile designs, and the Middlebury Institute believes it has located a secret enrichment site near Pyongyang. While the veracity of the latter discovery is disputed by experts on North Korea at 38 North, the trepidation shown by Pyongyang is consistent with the historical record, as is the regime’s apparent clandestine work on its weapon systems. The United States must remain cognizant of North Korea’s past behavior and, if Washington wants to make progress, be prepared to deal with a skittish regime that will hedge itself against any threat, real or perceived, to its survival. Instead of pushing for immediate or even rapid disarmament, Washington should encourage North and South Korea to settle on a concrete peace agreement first. To get Kim Jong-un to give up North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Kim must feel secure from Western military intervention. Officially ending the Korean War, with a signed peace treaty, would be the first step in a long, arduous process. The result, a denuclearized Korean peninsula, is well worth the time investment.