Kim Jong Un and US national security adviser John Bolton see lessons from Libya differently

The death of former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi (pictured) has held different implications for the US administration and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The death of former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi (pictured) has held different implications for the US administration and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - The last remnants of Libya's nuclear programme were loaded onto an aircraft in 2009 and shipped out of the country, part of a United States-brokered deal with dictator Muammar Qaddafi to disarm in return for sanctions relief.

Two years later, Nato-backed rebels brutally killed him.

The episode is still fresh in the minds of both North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Mr John Bolton, the new US national security adviser. But the lessons they learnt are very different, and that threatens to doom any talks between Mr Kim and President Donald Trump.

On March 19, Mr Bolton told Radio Free Asia that he hopes Mr Trump will follow the Libya model in demanding that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons, and that it could be a "very short meeting" if Mr Kim refuses.

But the North Korean leader has regularly cited Libya as an example of why he needs nuclear weapons - to deter a US invasion.

"It is such an implausible demand of North Korea that you set yourself up for failure," Ms Lindsey Ford, director of political-security affairs for the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington, said of Mr Bolton's proposal. "If that is your negotiating strategy, I don't see any path to success."

Questions about the summit have only grown since Mr Trump surprised the world this month (March) by agreeing to meet with Mr Kim after repeatedly threatening war if he did not halt his nuclear programme.

The two sides have yet to announce a date for the summit, and North Korea has not issued an official statement acknowledging the meeting.


Since then, Mr Trump has shaken up his national security team. He nominated the hawkish CIA chief Mike Pompeo to replace Mr Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and last week named Mr Bolton to replace General H.R McMaster. Both Mr Bolton and Mr Pompeo have publicly advocated regime change in North Korea, something Mr Tillerson had said was not a US goal.

"The two most important people advising Trump on foreign policy are at the extreme end of what to do about North Korea," said Mr Mike Chinoy, a former journalist who visited North Korea 17 times and wrote a book about its nuclear programme. "The danger is that Pompeo and Bolton say it can't be solved diplomatically, and they are going to reinforce Trump's most combative instincts."

Mr Bolton has repeatedly made the case for a preemptive attack targeting specific nuclear sites, most recently in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on March 1 titled, "The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First".

He wrote: "The threat is imminent. We should not wait until the very last minute."

Just after Mr Trump sent out a tweet announcing Mr Bolton's new role, he told Fox News, where he had been working as a contributor, that "what I've said in private now is behind me" and "the important thing is what the president says and what advice I give him".

With Mr Tillerson and General McMaster gone, that advice is likely to reinforce Mr Trump's more hawkish instincts.

Mr Bolton famously supported the US invasion of Iraq. On the day that Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled from its pedestal in Baghdad in 2003, Mr Bolton - who was undersecretary of state at the time - said regimes like North Korea's should "draw the appropriate lesson".

Mr Bolton has a history of opposition to multilateral security and arms control agreements. In 2002 he used a US intelligence claim that North Korea had covertly sought uranium enrichment technology to make a nuclear bomb to pull out of the 1994 Framework Deal reached under president Bill Clinton.

"This was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework," Mr Bolton wrote in his memoirs.

In his book "Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis", Mr Chinoy chronicles how the regime restarted its nuclear programme after an eight-year hiatus after the collapse of the Agreed Framework. North Korea went from having enough nuclear material to build one or two bombs in 1994 to now having enough for more than 100, Mr Chinoy said.

North Korea has repeatedly said it will only give up its nuclear weapons once the US drops what it calls a "hostile" policy. South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo wrote this month that Mr Kim wants to sign a peace treaty and establish diplomatic relations with the US.

Yet some analysts fear a further outbreak of hostilities is also possible if talks break down.

"Bolton has often counselled force where other options existed and where the risks are high," said political science associate professor Robert Kelly at South Korea's Pusan National University.

"That Trump still did this sends a signal that he takes the use of force very seriously," he said.