North Korea has repeatedly said it fears US invasion if it gives up its nuclear deterrent
This was a key lesson Pyongyang learned from the fate of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi
As the US prepares to try and convince North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons, it may have made his counter argument for him.
On Friday, US President Donald Trump announced he had given the order for US forces to strike the Syrian regime in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held city in the southwest of the country, which he blames on Russia and Syria.
But the attack against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – a longtime ally of North Korea – could complicate Trump’s planned summit with Kim, expected to take place in May or June.
“This is sort of the whole reason why North Korea has pursued nuclear weapons,” Rodger Baker, VP of strategic analysis for the global intelligence firm Stratfor, told CNN. “The perception is (having nuclear weapons) reduces the likelihood of these types of punitive strikes.”
In the past, Pyongyang has repeatedly pointed to US military interventions around the world as a justification for its nuclear program, viewing it as a vital deterrent to any attempts at regime change instigated or led by Washington.
According to Dan Coats, Trump’s director of national intelligence, Kim views nukes as key to the “survival (of) his regime.”
“He has watched … what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have, and seen that having the nuclear card in your pocket results in a lot of deterrence capability,” he said at an event last year.
Learning from history
US President George W. Bush welcomed Libya back into the “community of nations,” and British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Tripoli the following year as Gadhafi was embraced as a partner in the growing War on Terror.
By March 2011, however, London and Washington had soured on Gadhafi, and NATO intervened to support his overthrow. Within months, Gadhafi was dead, cornered by rebels who beat and abused him before summarily shooting him in the head.
Some Ukrainian politicians have also claimed that had the country not given up its post-Soviet nuclear arsenal, Russia would not have annexed Crimea in 2014, though Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has rejected calls for Kiev to become a nuclear power again.
“The lessons that we learned out of Libya … and Ukraine giving up its nukes is, unfortunately, if you had nukes, never give them up,” Coats said. “(And) if you don’t have them, get them.”
A North Korean foreign ministry official said in 2011 that NATO’s bombing campaign against Libya taught “a grave lesson,” that “one should have power to defend peace.”
Since Kim took power that same year, North Korea has dramatically ramped up its nuclear and missile testing, and in November 2017 Pyongyang debuted a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) allegedly capable of striking the whole US mainland.
“It’s hard to say out loud, because people say you’re justifying North Korea’s bad behavior,” said Stratfor’s Baker. “(But) Libya is a case in point of how US promises are temporary at best.”
Another example often cited is the Trump administration’s criticism and backtracking of the Iran nuclear deal reached under President Barack Obama.
Tehran agreed in 2015 to limit its peaceful nuclear energy program in exchange for a reduction in sanctions, but Trump has since said the deal contained “disastrous flaws” and threatened to scrap it if Iran continued ballistic missile testing not covered by the original deal.
“The lesson for any future negotiation with North Korea is you can’t count on the Americans to live up to anything,” Mike Chinoy, a senior fellow at the US-China Institute at the University of Southern California, told CNN in February.
“So screw it, get as many nukes as you can, and say: ‘We dare you to attack us because we can nuke Los Angeles’.”
While analysts said North Korea’s massive conventional military and vast amounts of artillery aimed at Seoul gave it a deterrent Libya and Syria both lacked, even without nuclear weapons, all indications are Pyongyang has no intentions of reducing its capabilities.
“(Syria) is one of those case studies the North Koreans will use in their discourse with the US,” Baker said. “What exactly is a security guarantee?”
North Korea’s concerns about suffering the same fate as Syria or Libya speak to a major potential sticking point in any negotiations with the US: what both parties mean by “denuclearization.”
Washington has called for the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, and while Pyongyang agrees with this aim in principle, it regards Washington’s commitment to it as hollow when the US continues to maintain a massive military presence in South Korea, which is also under the wider US nuclear umbrella.
Since 1953, the US has been committed to defending South Korea with nuclear weapons if necessary. This almost occurred in the late 1960s when, amid a crisis over the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo spy ship, US officials approved plans in secret to use nuclear weapons against any North Korean troops which crossed into South Korea.
In a commentary last month, the state-run North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the US “has posed nuclear threat and blackmail to (North Korea) for several decades.”
“Peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and the rest of the world have been reliably guaranteed by (North Korea’s) bolstering of nuclear deterrent,” KCNA said.
Friday’s strike in Syria may make arguing the opposite more difficult than it ever was.
CNN’s Josh Berlinger, Jamie Tarabay and Ben Westcott contributed reporting.