North Korea did Trump a favor by snubbing Bolton

North Korea did Trump a favor by snubbing Bolton
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It was pure fantasy to think that North Korea was going to turn over its nuclear arsenal within months of the planned June 12 Trump-Kim summit. Yet, apparently, National Security Adviser John Bolton has an active imagination.

So it’s a good thing that Pyongyang has rejected Bolton’s ridiculous Libya plan; Trump can now focus on realistic ways to get the denuclearization we all want. 


Bolton has been aggressively touting his plan to apply the “Libya model” to North Korea. By this he means that, as Libya did in 2003, North Korea should turn over its nuclear program to the United States soon after the summit, and only then would Washington reward Pyongyang with economic and security benefits.


Nevermind that Libya had a minuscule nuclear program hardly comparable to North Korea, or that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed in 2011 after the United States and European allies attacked the country.

The lesson to North Korea was clear: If you don’t want to end up like Gaddafi, don’t give up your nukes unless you have another way to guarantee your security.

So it should have come as no great surprise when on Wednesday, North Korean First Vice-Minister Kim Kye Gwan issued a statement rejecting Bolton’s approach, and Bolton personally, outright.

He criticized the “so-called Libya mode of nuclear abandonment” as “absolutely absurd” and the notion of "abandoning nuclear weapons first, compensating afterwards” as a “sinister move.” On Bolton, Kim said, “We do not hide our feeling of repugnance towards him.”

Kim also reiterated North Korea’s support for “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and that such a step would require an “end to anti-DPRK hostile policy and nuclear threats and blackmail of the United States.” He warned against forcing Pyongyang into “unilateral nuclear abandonment.”

Some have interpreted Kim’s rejection of “unilateral nuclear abandonment” as proof that North Korea has no plans to ever give up its nuclear weapons. Not so fast. This could also be Kim rejecting the Libya model, where Pyongyang would be expected to “unilaterally” surrender its arsenal without anything in return.

Trump got the message. The next day the president threw Bolton under the bus, saying that, "the Libya model isn’t the model that we have at all when we’re thinking of North Korea.” Let’s hope that is the last we hear of it.

So if Libya is not a good model to apply to North Korea, what is? 

Maybe South Africa, the only nation to have built nuclear weapons and then voluntarily unbuilt them. The apartheid government secretly built and then dismantled seven nuclear bombs before revealing its program to the world in 1993.

After South Africa joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1991, international inspectors were invited in. It took about 18 months for South Africa to dismantle its own weapons and about two years to prove it to the world.

But even the South African case is simple compared to North Korea, which has more weapons, more facilities and long-range missiles as well. Plus our standards of verification will likely be higher for North Korea, a nation we expect to try to cheat, than for South Africa, which had just handed power to Nelson Mandela.

The bottom line is that it takes years to disarm a country, even if it does so voluntarily.

But the physical process of denuclearizing North Korea may be quick compared to the time it takes to build the confidence to get to this point. To avoid ending up like Gaddafi, Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear arsenal until its security concerns are addressed in some other way.

There is no piece of paper, no agreement that can do this. U.S. security guarantees are not enough. We must transform the U.S.-North Korea relationship so both sides feel more secure. That will take time. 

The Trump administration can get what it wants from North Korea if it plays its cards right. The goal for the June 12 summit should be an agreed statement that leads to the phased denuclearization of the peninsula and a transformed U.S.-North Korea relationship.

Meanwhile, both sides can front-load the agreement to get things they need to sell the deal back home. For Trump, that could mean ending North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile testing, closing the test site and possibly getting Pyongyang to dismantle its long-range missiles and make available for inspection a significant chunk of its weapons material.

We don’t want Pyongyang to hand over complete warheads because, weapons designers say, we don’t know how to dismantle them as well as they do. These are tangible steps that would reduce the dangers we face from North Korea, and they could be completed before the 2020 election.

So let’s forget about the Libya model. There are no shortcuts to the hard work of building confidence between two nations that, just a few months ago, were threatening each other with nuclear annihilation. But by planning for a phased, multi-year process, the June 12 summit can still be a grand success.

Tom Z. Collina is the director of policy for the Ploughshares Fund, a public grantmaking foundation that supports initiatives to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons, and to prevent conflicts that could lead to their use.