As the United States and North Korea inch closer to holding talks again in Singapore on June 12, observers are waiting with bated breath to see if anyone will mention the “Libya model” of denuclearization.
U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton first said that North Korea should follow the “Libya model” of denuclearization last month, leading Pyongyang to cast doubts on the future of the planned U.S.-North Korea talks. President Donald Trump backtracked on this, but then Vice President Mike Pence doubled down on it, and in an oddly menacing way too, saying last week that things in North Korea “will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal.”
Also last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he didn’t even want to distinguish between a Libya model of denuclearization and something more gradual or nuanced.
So, since everyone keeps talking about it, how are things in Libya, some 15 years after its leadership agreed to give up its nuclear weapons program?
In a word: unstable.
Factions from an incredibly fragmented, restive Libya met in Paris on Tuesday, agreeing to hold parliamentary elections in December, but the future of the country remains ever more uncertain.
The meeting also serves to shine a light on what’s going on in Libya right now and why North Korea so harshly rejected any talk of following that model of denuclearization, as mentioned by several members of the Trump administration.
For those who haven’t been following developments in Libya, here’s basically where things stand: The government in the country’s capital, Tripoli, is backed by the United Nations, but has failed, by every measure, to bring stability to Libya.
The oil-rich country’s economy is flailing, its banking system in desperate need of reform. Its education and health care systems are a mess (two-thirds of schools there have limited access to drinking water) as people strain to live under the stress of cash shortages and massive power outages.
They still have to come up with the electoral laws for the elections by September. Then they will have to establish sufficient security for the elections to even take place — and that, in a country torn up and divided by countless militia groups, is a tall order.
The government in Tripoli, run by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, isn’t even recognized by a large swath of the country.
In addition to facing several parliamentary factions, Sarraj will also have to deal with General Khalifa Haftar, who along with his Libyan National Army, controls the country’s eastern region. Another added wrinkle is that Haftar has been ill — he was rumored to have died in April — and might be replaced by the time the elections roll around.
There’s been little good news out of Libya in the years since Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in a NATO-backed revolution that ended with him being killed by an angry mob on the streets in 2011, just eight years after he agreed to end the country’s chemical and nuclear weapons program.
While no one is arguing that the world would be safer if Gaddafi, a cruel, ruthless dictator, had access to nuclear weapons, using Libya as a model for negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs seems simultaneously baffling and threatening.
Richard Nephew, who was on the team negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (that Trump has withdrawn from and is trying to further undo), says it’s best to avoid mentioning Libya. Not only will it enrage North Korea, he says, but it’s also irrelevant.
“The fact that the Trump team isn’t terribly clear as to what model they mean — i.e., the denuclearization part or the dying at the hands of a mob part — is only a feature of the larger bug,” Nephew, who was also involved in dismantling Libya’s program, wrote in a piece for the Brookings Institute. “The process of Libyan denuclearization bears little resemblance to the vast and complicated process that would be required to engineer a similar result in North Korea.”
“The Libyan program was small and nonproductive…By contrast, the North Korean nuclear weapons program is large, secretive, and manifestly effective,” wrote Nephew.
With two weeks to go, North Korea, South Korea, and the United States are proceeding with planning meetings as though the June 12 summit will indeed happen. Trump has not officially announced that the summit is once again taking place.