Libyan Lessons for North Korea: A Case of Déjà Vu

When the various uprisings began in North Africa and the Middle East in January 2011, the combination of wishful thinking and a lack of knowledge led some to hope for a similar process to occur in North Korea. Drawing such parallels, however, overlooked the very different domestic situation and the dim chances for a coordinated grass roots movements in the DPRK.*

Nonetheless, the latest developments in Libya will have a strong effect on North Korea. The Pyongyang leadership, like the rest of the world, has been watching the massive aerial attacks over the weekend. The North Koreans must feel alarmed, but also deeply satisfied with themselves. After all, this is at least the third instance in two decades that would seem to offer proof that they did something right while others failed and ultimately paid the price.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in 1987

The first such instance was Gorbachev’s foolish belief that his policies to end the arms race and confrontation with the West would be rewarded by respect for the Soviet Union’s existence and support for its faltering economy. On the contrary, his empire was destroyed piece by piece by Western support of anti-communist governments in its European satellites and independence movements in various (now former) Soviet Republics. In the end, the reformer was ousted, NATO was expanded, and his once mighty country was weakened and ridiculed. Others had an even less desirable fate, such as Romania’s Ceausescu or East Germany’s Honecker.

The second instance was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Humiliated after a quick defeat in the First Gulf War, Hussein accepted Western control over about half of his airspace in 1991 and had to suffer regular small-scale attacks on ground targets for more than a decade. Sanctions led to the “oil for food” program of 1995. However, his compliance did not save Hussein’s regime from allegations of hiding weapons of mass destruction, and ultimately from complete annihilation in the Second Gulf War.

Now, there is Libya’s Gaddafi. It was not so long ago that it was popular in political circles to urge Kim Jong Il to follow Gaddafi’s example. On February 14, 2005, the conservative South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo even reported that then ROK Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and current UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, was sent to Libya to urge Mr. Gaddafi to visit North Korea and persuade Kim Jong Il to abandon his nuclear weapons. The Libyan dictator as an ambassador of disarmament and peace—how was that possible? In December 2003, after long negotiations with the West, Libya had surprisingly announced that it would give up its programs for developing weapons of mass destruction and allow unconditional inspections. This earned Gaddafi immediate praise from Washington and London, followed by a prestigious invitation to Paris in December 2007, where he met President Sarkozy twice.

Gaddafi, in a lineup of G8 leaders at a summit in Italy in 2009. (Photo: UPI/Landov)

How will the North Korean leaders likely interpret this? In all three cases, the West’s demands were satisfied. Most importantly, serious concessions were made in the military field. The Soviets abandoned the political option to use their WMD and entered into disarmament programs; the Iraqis allowed the West meticulous surveillance; and Libya gave up its WMD programs and allowed inspections to make sure these would not be restarted. It received, among other things, a $10 billion deal with France in return—and now French jets were the first to bomb government troops.

To put it bluntly, in the eyes of the North Korean leadership, all three countries took the economic bait, foolishly disarmed themselves, and once they were defenseless, were mercilessly punished by the West.

It requires little imaginative power to see what conclusions will be drawn in Pyongyang. If there was anybody left at all in the elite who would dare try to persuade his leaders to sit down with the West and find a way to denuclearize, he will now be silent. Those who thought that the economic price of the military-first policy was too high will stand corrected. Not yielding an inch on the nuclear question will continue to be the key paradigm of North Korea’s foreign policy for the foreseeable future.

*Editor’s Note: Just a few hours after this article was posted, a KCNA spokesperson was reported to have issued these statements.

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