Nevertheless, as plans for Donald Trump’s June 12 nuclear summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore have taken shape in recent days, Trump administration officials have repeatedly invoked Libya. First National-Security Adviser John Bolton, re-upping an argument he often made as a television pundit, called for North Korea to follow the Libyan model of nuclear disarmament—a process he was personally involved in while serving in the Bush administration—and speedily ship its entire nuclear arsenal out of the country while granting international inspectors unfettered access to nuclear sites before receiving rewards. North Korea, by contrast, would prefer to incrementally roll back its nuclear program in return for corresponding political, economic, and security concessions.
Last week, Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs, threatened to pull out of the U.S.-North Korea summit, largely over Bolton’s remarks. “It is absolutely absurd to dare compare [North Korea], a nuclear weapon state, to Libya which had been at the initial stage of nuclear development,” Kim declared. “The world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq which have met miserable fates.” As for Bolton, “we do not hide our feeling of repugnance towards him.”
Soon Libya morphed from a case study on denuclearization to code for the war that could break out if a denuclearization deal fell apart. Conflating the 2003 disarmament of Qaddafi with the 2011 NATO military operation against Qaddafi into one inscrutable “Libya model,” Trump pledged to offer Kim Jong Un security “protections” that Qaddafi never received in exchange for dismantling his nuclear program. In the same breath, however, he ominously threatened Kim’s security if the North Korean leader refused to trade away his nuclear weapons. “We went in and decimated [Qaddafi]. And we did the same thing with Iraq,” Trump noted. “That model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely. But if we make a deal, I think Kim Jong Un is going to be very, very happy.”
By the time Vice President Mike Pence got around to talking about Libya, earlier this week, the North African nation had transformed into an unadulterated ultimatum. “This will only end like the Libya model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal,” Pence told Fox News. “Some people [see] that as a threat,” host Martha MacCallum noted. “I think it’s more of a fact,” Pence responded. “President Trump made it clear the United States of America under his leadership is not going to tolerate the regime in North Korea possessing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that threaten the United States and our allies.” Military options to prevent that outcome, he added, “never came off” the table.
That’s when the Singapore summit really started to teeter. Choe Son Hui, a North Korean vice foreign minister, issued a fiery rebuttal denouncing Pence as a “political dummy” and warning that whether the United States encountered North Korea in a “meeting room” or “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown” depended on American behavior. “In order not to follow in Libya’s footstep, we paid a heavy price to build up our powerful and reliable strength,” Choe stated. “I come to think that [the Americans] know too little about us.”