The “Libya model” hung like a dark cloud over the negotiations leading up to the historic Singapore summit between President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE and Kim Jong Un. For North Korea, the Libya model suggests that it cannot trust security guarantees offered by Washington in exchange for denuclearization lest it meet the same fate as former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
For some Trump administration officials such as national security adviser John Bolton, by contrast, the Libya model is the key to quick and decisive denuclearization in exchange for normalization. For those who have been victims of human rights abuses committed by totalitarian regimes such as that of North Korea, the lesson of the 2003 U.S. rapprochement with Libya is a different one: Any deal to normalize relations is unlikely to include human rights considerations. This is a win for the brutal Kim regime, which hopes to alleviate pressure on Pyongyang over human rights issues.
The rapprochement with Libya
The history of the U.S. rapprochement with Libya is instructive. Even as George W. Bush spoke of expanding freedom in the Middle East after 9/11, small teams of U.S. diplomats were pursuing a realpolitik policy of secretly negotiating with top officials of the Gaddafi regime. Gaddafi, like Kim, was desperate for international recognition and an improved domestic economic situation, which had suffered under years of sanctions.
In the end, the United States not only addressed a core security concern, but also Lockerbie. The rapprochement also facilitated valuable intelligence cooperation with Gaddafi’s internal security agency, which was also responsible for domestic repression. This cooperation later turned out to be helpful to the United States in Iraq, where a growing insurgency included large numbers of Libyans.
However, for those concerned with human rights, the rehabilitation of Gaddafi represented capitulation to a deeply repressive regime. The agreement did not address Gaddafi’s extensive human rights abuses and in subsequent years the United States did not put any meaningful human rights pressure on the Libyan regime. Gaddafi got the recognition he craved, but without offering any concessions on human rights.
From rapprochement to protection
By contrast, human rights were at the forefront of the 2011 military intervention in Libya when the world came together around the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” to stop Gaddafi from massacring his own people. The international military intervention, which the United States joined, did not initially aim for regime change, but as Gaddafi dug in and refused various pleas for a negotiated exit, it became clear that the NATO air war was benefiting the Libyan rebels in ousting the Libyan dictator.
But the circumstances surrounding both the 2003 rapprochement and the 2011 intervention also differ in key respects from those in the North Korean case. For one, in 2003, Gaddafi’s nuclear program was in its infancy, thus it was easier to verifiably dismantle. North Korea, by contrast, possesses a credible nuclear deterrent, which only increases the realpolitik calculations of Washington policymakers.
Lessons for North Korea negotiations
American engagement with unsavory regimes that abuse human rights is at times needed to achieve higher aims such as peace and nonproliferation. As Franklin Roosevelt famously said of his alliance with Joseph Stalin during World War II, “It is permitted in time of grave danger to walk with the devil until you have crossed the bridge.”
But this does not mean that human rights need to be entirely left out of any deal with Pyongyang. For example, the Trump administration could offer specific rewards, such as increased aid, in exchange for concrete actions, like the release of political prisoners. The president has criticized the human rights situation in North Korea in the past, and after the Singapore summit declared that he raised the issue with Kim.
But that was overshadowed by many words of praise for the North Korean dictator, and the final communique, which included no mention of human rights. Trump wants to make a deal happen as a way to solidify his place in history. That and Trump’s clear record of disregard for America’s traditional human rights and democracy promoting role, the sad reality is that any U.S. deal with North Korea is likely to resemble the one with Libya 15 years ago, with human rights falling by the wayside.
Mieczyslaw Boduszynski, Ph.D., is assistant professor of politics at Pomona College and research fellow at the Center for Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California. He was a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State who served in several postings including Libya.