What Kim Jong-Il Learned from Qaddafi's Fall: Never Disarm

As the U.S. tries to restart multiparty talks with North Korea, it may find that the rogue state suddenly sees greater value in keeping its nuclear arsenal

As the U.S. tries to restart multiparty talks with North Korea, it may find that the rogue state suddenly sees greater value in keeping its nuclear arsenal
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-il sits during a meeting with Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev at a Siberia military garrison / Reuters

The world watched in awe this Thursday as photos of Mummar Qaddafi's bludgeoned corpse marked the end of the Libyan dictator's 42-year rule. Libyans filled the streets in jubilation and leaders worldwide issued impassioned statements as the brutal regime came to an end. But 6,000 miles away in Pyongyang, North Korea, one leader was probably not celebrating. This gruesome end to Qaddafi's rule has likely confirmed what Kim Jong Il must have long been aware -- a dictator who wants to hold on to power should also hold onto his nuclear weapons.

Libya once had the materials needed to make nuclear bombs: centrifuges, weapons designs, and fissile material.  Finding their manufacture exceedingly difficult, the country gave up its program in 2003, under strong pressure from the U.S. and its allies. Enticed with an end to heavy sanctions it had endured since the 1980s, improved relations with the West, and a guarantee of security, Qaddafi ended his nuclear quest. Just 8 years later, his position was as far from secure as one could imagine.

The North Korean dictator has taken a very different nuclear path. No doubt understanding that his regime and his own survival are under constant threat, Kim has been quite unwilling to disarm. The last two decades have provided him with numerous cautionary tales of dictatorships defeated -- the Iraqi army was trounced in 1991, NATO triumphed over Milosevic in 1999, and the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. And just this March, as NATO operations in Libya began, a North Korean spokesperson announced the lesson that Kim's regime had learned: "It has been shown to the corners of the earth that Libya's giving up its nuclear arms. ... was used as an invasion tactic to disarm the country by sugarcoating it with words like 'the guaranteeing of security' and the 'bettering of relations.' Having one's own strength," the official continued, "was the only way to keep the peace."

Today and on Tuesday, representatives from the United States will meet with North Korean officials in Geneva. Envoys will discuss the resumption of the paralyzed six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program. In 2005, that multilateral dialogue produced a joint statement in which North Korea committed to gradual disarmament. In exchange, the state would receive much-needed foreign aid, security guarantees, and diplomatic relations with Washington. But this familiar disarmament package can hardly look promising to Kim after Qaddafi's violent demise.

The cycles of stalled negotiations that have repeated since 1994 suggest that Kim may never have been truly interested in nuclear disarmament. But the lessons of Qaddafi's ouster will surely make him less inclined to this course than he was already. North Korea has long demanded a security guarantee from the United States; given the volatile and aggressive nature of the regime, the U.S. has understandably been hesitant to give one. But now more than ever, it is hard to see what sort of assurance could convince Kim to disarm. The Dear Leader has probably learned through careful observation that the only true security guarantee for a fragile autocracy, one that must fear internal dissent as well as outside aggressors, may be a nuclear arsenal.

Conventional weapons, which North Korea has in spades, have time and again shown themselves to be unreliable deterrents when state survival is in question. Nuclear weapons have never failed to deter other states -- no matter how powerful those states may be. The strong have been able to deter the strong -- the United States and Soviet Union did so for decades -- but, alas, the weak can also deter the strong. This surely played a large role in why the U.S. was so eager to disarm Qaddhafi in 2003; it is also why we'd like to see the same from North Korea. But, now that Kim has watched the demise of one of his fellow dictators, we are not likely to.