In discussions about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the current negotiations cycle surrounding it, many observers quote the Libyan example as one of the reasons why North Korea, under its current regime, will never fully surrender its WMDs no matter what incentives are given.
The logic is that although Muammar Gaddafi stopped his weapons of mass destruction program in 2003-4 in exchange for normalization of relations with the Western world, he was killed in 2011 when the same West supported his overthrow in Libya.
Having seen this, the logic continues, North Korea does not trust the West and does not want to follow the same path.
But how does Pyongyang perceive Gaddafi’s fate?
Before we move on to the North Korean coverage of the fate of the late Colonel, it makes sense to remind ourselves about the timeline of events which led to Gaddafi’s downfall.
Muammar Gaddafi came to power in Libya in 1969 after a coup he had launched against the local monarchy and ruled the nation unchallenged for 42 years.
For decades, his government pursued various WMD-related projects. However, in 2003, following the United States’ invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Gaddafi agreed to end these projects completely – in exchange for normalization of relations with the West and the cancellation of sanctions against Tripoli. It should be said that at the time Libya’s nuclear program was in its early stages, and Tripoli never possessed an atomic bomb.
Several years later, in 2011, protests against the regime escalated into a civil war which engulfed the nation. The Security Council unanimously condemned Tripoli’s use of violence against civilians and imposed sanctions.
Initially, pro-government forces were winning the war, but after Gaddafi publicly promised to slaughter the population of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the West decided to intervene.
The intervention was promoted by France, and the country also swayed Britain and the United States. Out of other notable powers, Brazil, China, India, Germany, and Russia were more skeptical, but ultimately all five decided to abstain from voting on UNSC Resolution 1973 – the one which opened the way for the intervention.
Supported by NATO forces, the rebels were victorious. Gaddafi refused to surrender and was brutally killed during the fight for his last stronghold, the city of Sirte.
The collapse of its regime gave birth to a democratic government, which, however, proved itself to be short-lived – a military coup attempt in 2014 plunged the country into another civil war. As of 2018, the fighting continues.
NORTH KOREAN PERCEPTION: DIFFERENCES OF OPINION?
While Gaddafi’s rise to power was initially covered in a quite neutral way by the DPRK publications, state media soon became quite friendly to him. Later, “His Excellency the Colonel” became a truly comradely figure to the North following a visit to Pyongyang in 1982.
However, when this author investigated the DPRK’s coverage of Libya’s disarmament and Gaddafi’s later downfall, he found something which he had never seen before when reading official North Korean literature: a somewhat different opinion between various publications.
Specifically, it appeared that the authors of North Korea’s Central Yearbook were somewhat favorable to Gaddafi’s policy line of disarmament while the party newspaper the Rodong Sinmun appeared more skeptical of it.
While not being directly hailed, Gaddafi’s disarmament was presented as something of positive development
Let us start with the Yearbook, where Libya’s disarmament was covered in a relatively neutral tone. The Central Yearbook of 2004, dedicated, as usual, to the events of the previous year, recounts how in August Tripoli had assumed full responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and agreed to pay USD$2.7 billion in compensation, how the 1992 sanctions against Libya were later lifted by the UN, how Tripoli allowed UN access to its four nuclear plants, and how its chemical weapons disarmament had began.
The next yearbook added that the nuclear disarmament of Libya was complete and that the United States had resumed diplomatic relations with Tripoli.
While not being directly hailed, Gaddafi’s disarmament was presented as something of positive development. Reading its section on Libya, one gets the image of a country which chose to yield its weapons of mass destruction and was rewarded with economic benefits and respect in return.
When it came to the Rodong Sinmun, things were different. Flattery towards Tripoli in the newspaper, quite common before 2003, ceased as soon as Gaddafi began to negotiate and disarm, and the newspaper chose to simply ignore Libya in later coverage.
The Yearbook’s report on the beginning of the Civil War was also mostly neutral. The only ideological detail was the claim that the intervention was “led by the United States,” while in fact, the main promoter of the military operation was the then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Admitting that France might be an independent player, of course, and, that the United States may play a secondary role to any of its allies would be to undermine Pyongyang’s dogma about American imperialism enslaving the world – and Pyongyang chose instead to fabricate.
After Gaddafi’s fall, the Yearbook maintained its broadly neutral tone. Criticism of post-Gaddafi Libya in the 2014 edition was limited to one phrase – “Violence and political instability have intensified after the fall of the Gaddafi regime” – a phrase which could have been uttered anywhere in the Western media.
The next year, after Libya fell victim to a new civil war, the Yearbook, once again in a neutral tone, reported on both the causes of the new civil war, without giving a preference to any of the sides and expressed concerns about parts of Libya being seized by the Islamic State – the terrorist organisation Pyongyang always discusses with utter contempt.
The Yearbook also mentioned an attempt to strike a peace agreement in the country. No criticism of the West, no nostalgia for Gaddafi, no remarks about the sorry fate of the nations which surrender nukes – only the facts.
As for the Rodong Sinmun, things were different.
On April 18, 2013, the newspaper published a report on “the lessons on the situation in Libya.” As Pyongyang normally does when it wants to relay a message without putting an official stamp on it, it was signed by an individual rather than being presented as an editorial.
“The countries which abandon strengthening of their military in response to the American military pressure and deceptive appeasement, could not avoid their sorry fate. One can clearly see it in what happened to Libya,” began the piece.
The article then talked about Gaddafi coming to power, about the United States sanctioning him, and about him secretly starting nuclear and missile projects – praised, of course, as a means for self-defense.
However, continued the piece, after seeing the collapse of Iraq and the country coming under the direct rule of the United States’ military, Libya started to waver. It allowed inspections of its nuclear centers, while West was talking about peace and the return of Tripoli to the international community.
When the country was weakened, Washington invaded (the piece did not mention that Libya was already in a state of a civil war at the time of the intervention) and the country became, to quote the Rodong Sinmun, “a plot of wormwood.”
The conclusion directly stated that all of this happened because Libya gave up its nuclear weapons, which were necessary for its survival.
“One can clearly see it in what happened to Libya”
TRUST IS NOT THE ISSUE
Most likely, both Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un did not consider Gaddafi’s fate to be that important.
While there are clearly lessons to be learned, North Korea won’t surrender their arsenal not because some eccentric dictator in Northern Africa got himself killed and not because they do not trust the West – no, they won’t surrender it because they have no incentive to do so – like any other country.
If back in 2011 the international community would have idly stood by and allowed Gaddafi to turn Benghazi into a bloodbath, this would not have meant that seven years later, in an alternate 2018, Pyongyang would be happy to quickly pack up all its missiles and nukes and ship them to the U.S., with Donald Trump and John Bolton smilingly observing the process.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Wikimedia commons
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