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History reveals the differences in denuclearizing Libya and North Korea

The Hill logo The Hill 5/19/2018 Sandeep Gopalan, opinion contributor

With all their talk about the so-called "Libya model" for denuclearization, President Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton have not shown that what the United States did with Muammar Gaddafi in 2003 and 2004, when it dismantled Libya's nuclear weapons infrastructure, could work now with Kim Jong Un's regime. The reality is, the Libya situation that led to Gaddafi's deposition and death was much different than that of North Korea today.

Muammar Gaddafi holding his hands up © Provided by The Hill

In an April 29 appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation," Bolton said the United States was "looking at the Libya model" as the Trump administration prepares for a planned June 12 summit with Kim in Singapore, but Bolton acknowledged "it's a different situation in some respects. ... One thing that Libya did that led us to overcome our skepticism was that they allowed American and British observers into all their nuclear-related sites." North Korea has said it would very publicly close its only known nuclear test site, but on Friday it declined to allow South Korean journalists to be among the witnesses.

President Trump this past week aimed to clarify Bolton's remarks, though his words brought more confusion than clarity. "The Libyan model isn't a model that we have at all when we're thinking of North Korea," he said. Instead, any deal between the United States and Korea would entail allowing Kim to remain "in his country; he'd be running his country. His country would be very rich."

In Libya, Trump said, "We decimated that country." But with regard to North Korea, he explained, "When John Bolton made that statement, he was talking about if we're going to be having a problem, because we cannot let that country have nukes. We just can't do it."

Indeed, Libya gave up its nuclear program under vastly different circumstances. Libya's economy was in desperate straits from crippling sanctions imposed because of its support of terrorism. Its exports were a mere $9.71 billion in 2002, when it imported $4.79 billion worth of goods. The country's economy was on life support for over a decade before that. An indication of how much sanctions must have hurt is provided by what happened when the sanctions were lifted: exports grew to reach $57 billion in 2008 and imports rose to $20.1 billion.

Libya's economy depends heavily upon the export of crude petroleum and gold. Its oil revenues were worth $14 billion in 2017, despite years of instability and conflict. This conveys the picture of a country possessing the resources to be prosperous. And it had enjoyed prosperity before sanctions; for example, its GDP/capita in 1980 was $13,032 but fell to $6,882 in 1995. By 2008, it had recovered to $12,571. Therefore, it had strong incentive to seek the removal of sanctions and a return to the lifestyle its people once enjoyed. By comparison, sanctions against North Korea appear to be hurting, but the country is used to hardship and the North Korean regime finds ways to cope by smuggling goods.

The nuclear situation between Libya and North Korea is different, too. Libya's nuclear capabilities were modest, at best, in 2003. Libya had signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 but ratified it only in 1975. It commenced a clandestine nuclear program probably as a defense mechanism against Israel. Unlike some other countries which had covert programs, Libya did not possess indigenous expertise to build its program and was reliant on proliferators such as the A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan.

What is known is that Libya imported uranium ore concentrate from Niger, bought a uranium conversion facility in 1984, exported uranium ore to another country for processing and then reimported compounds back. It built a research reactor with the Soviets, and bought centrifuges from Pakistan in 1997. Libya's pursuit of nuclear technology seems to have escalated around 1997 with close assistance from Khan, and further escalated in 2000 with the acquisition of centrifuges from Pakistan and installation of various components. Khan apparently provided the blueprint for a weapon, including engineering diagrams and notes.

In October 2003, a ship containing centrifuge parts was intercepted on its way to Libya from Dubai - the parts were designed based on Pakistani technology. Crucially, despite the help of Khan, it is not clear that Libya actually possessed the capability to build a nuclear weapon. Based on what we know, it is highly unlikely that a Libyan nuclear weapon was on the near-term horizon in 2003 when Gaddafi started talks with the United States and United Kingdom.

Another difference: unlike North Korea, Libya did not have a significant missile capability. Although it imported some missiles from the Soviet Union prior to 1980, its indigenous efforts to avoid unsuccessful attempts at buying longer-range missiles since that time were failures. It even sought to acquire missiles from North Korea, but these were also unsuccessful. But a missile test last fall by North Korea showed it has the capability of reaching the U.S. mainland.

Given all this, it is a mistake to compare the situations of Libya and North Korea. The threat to the United States or its allies from Gaddafi was trivial in 2003. Even taking the worst view of Libya's nuclear capability, Gaddafi did not possess missiles capable of striking Western targets. Kim, however, has nuclear weapons, including hydrogen bombs, and the capability to deliver them - if not into the United States, at least to targets of value to the United States, including Seoul with 20 million people.

North Korea requires a sui generis approach. False analogies imperil negotiations - as witnessed by North Korea's hostile response to Bolton's statement - and might prompt strategic blunders. Hopefully, the contradictory words of the U.S. president and his national security adviser are not indicative of wider divisions.

Sandeep Gopalan is a professor of law and pro vice chancellor for academic innovation at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He previously was co-chairman or vice chairman of American Bar Association committees on aerospace/defense and international transactions, a member of the ABA's immigration commission, and dean of three law schools in Ireland and Australia. He has taught law in four countries and served as a visiting scholar at universities in France and Germany.

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