Paul R. Pillar
The already existing arsenal of nuclear weapons in North Korea presents greater challenges than Muammar Qaddafi’s nascent nuclear program.
It will take some time to piece together the strange story of the U.S.-North Korean summit that has been on, then off, then maybe on again. President Trump laid down a smokescreen by speaking, including in his letter announcing his cancellation of the meeting, as if it were the North Korean side that bailed out. Trump referred in his letter to “the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement.” Are we supposed to believe that the administration really was taken aback by hostile rhetoric from North Korea? Hostile rhetoric has long been one of that country’s principal exports, along with coal. Kim Jong-un has not even returned to calling Trump a dotard, although Trump in his letter returned to boasting about how his nuclear force is much bigger than Kim’s.
Second thoughts about proceeding with the meeting had been percolating in the administration, amid the major uncertainties about whether there was any basis for a meaningful agreement on nuclear matters. Still in doubt is what part of the story is Donald Trump, what part involves other figures in his administration, and how much they are even pulling in the same direction. One plausible theory of why the “Libya model” was originally raised by John Bolton, who is smart enough to know that any such reference would rile the North Koreans, is that the uber-hawk was sabotaging the diplomacy to increase the chance of a military attack. But then Vice President Mike Pence made his own reference to Libya. A plausible interpretation of Pence’s remark is that it was calculated to elicit just the sort of comeback it did (from North Korea’s deputy foreign minister), which would sound hostile and angry enough to serve as a rationale for cancelling a meeting that Trump had come to regret he had accepted.
Libya’s experience does indeed weigh heavily on the thinking of North Korean officials, who have taken explicit notice of that experience, as a disincentive to reaching any deals with the United States about dismantling weapons programs. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s eventual reward for negotiating away all his unconventional weapons programs was to be murdered in a ditch.