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Libyan Lessons for North Korea: A Case of Déjà Vu

21 March 2011

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.

Reader Feedback

9 Responses to “Libyan Lessons for North Korea: A Case of Déjà Vu”

  1. […] disarmed themselves, and once they were defenseless, were mercilessly punished by the West,’ Mr. Frank said in a commentary on 38 North. He also suggested that anyone in North Korea who favored denuclearization ‘will now be […]

  2. […] discussed the potential impact of Libya’s experience on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions in an insightful article by Ruediger Frank. I would like to continue looking at this issue, but from a broader angle. Beyond North Korea, what […]

  3. Fromtheotherside says:

    This analysis is one of the best I’ve read so far…A nuclear armed Libya would have deterred the Nato aggression…

  4. In March 2011, in response to Muammar el-Qaddafi’s violent attacks on a popular uprising against his repressive regime, an international coalition enforced a no-fly zone over Libya and flew air raids to protect civilians and support opposition forces. Some observers, including Ruediger Frank, have suggested that both North Korea and Iran might conclude that Qaddafi’s fatal error was giving up Libya’s nuclear program in 2004, leaving his regime open to attack by international forces. By this logic, the international community would not have intervened if Libya had a nuclear weapons program.

    This interpretation is wrong for several reasons. First, possessing nuclear weapons does not prevent conventional war or international intervention. Nuclear powers took part in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Yom Kippur War, both the Soviet and U.S. wars in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War. Nuclear weapons did not deter India and Pakistan from waging armed conflict over Kargil. This is especially true if there is an asymmetric relationship between powers, when one side has a huge conventional and nuclear superiority and the other has only a tiny nuclear capability. Powers with overwhelming superiority would not be deterred from using force against weaker opponents. North Korea and Iran should not rely on their nuclear bombs! Small states are not deterred from fighting big nuclear powers – big states are even less deterred from fighting small nuclear powers!

    Furthermore, in both Northeast Asia and the Middle East, the United States provides “extended deterrence” or a “nuclear umbrella” to protect its allies from a nuclear threat or attack. The U.S. has to demonstrate credibly that it would use overwhelming conventional and nuclear force if an ally were attacked with nuclear weapons. In general, major nuclear powers are more rather than less likely to use force against smaller states that develop nuclear weapons or are considered to be a risk.

    This might well have been the chief reason Qaddafi abandoned his nuclear program in 2004; he may have believed that he was less secure with the bomb than without it. A similar fear may have persuaded Iran to suspend its own nuclear weapons program in 2003.

  5. Haksoon Paik says:

    Ruediger Frank’s analysis is an excellent piece in highlighting the way the North Korean leadership perceives the impact of international actions or events on itself. It reminds me of one of the nine “rules” Hans Morgenthau enumerated for the successful diplomacy in his classical book “Politics among Nations”–that is, “think about your action or policy in your target country’s viewpoint” or something like that.

    I would like to take this opportunity to express thanks to “38 North” for carrying many insightful pieces that helped us understand North Korea and our relationship with it more sensibly.

  6. […] Ruediger Frank talks about lessons for North Korea from […]

  7. Young H. Lee says:

    So Kim Jong-il will never abandon his nuclear weapons program. Will it guarantee his continued grip of power? I doubt it. Why? Because it is the flow of information that caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, not arms reduction. Information on the relative prosperity of the West. This was the cause of change. The same is true in Tunisia, Egypt, and Lybia. So far, Kim Jong-il has succeeded to block the information flow. But will he continue to succeed? I doubt it.

  8. […] entire strategy.” The North Korean policy takeaway from the “Libya model” is to hold on to their nukes at all costs. In the words of the North Korean foreign ministry spokesman, “having […]

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.