Libya model won’t work with N Korea

Libya model won’t work with N Korea

The second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in Hanoi on 27-28 February, ended with no result. The long-drawn back-channel negotiations that led to the Hanoi summit, ending in a fiasco, led analysts to ask if all had been lost in the negotiation process and if it will now be a return to heightened tensions.

No one knows what actually transpired between Trump and Kim. It was presumed to have been a non-starter, until the revelation surfaced that Trump had handed Kim a piece of paper on February 28, written both in Korean and English, that included a blunt call for the transfer of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and bomb fuel to the US.

Though there was a lot of confusion on the interpretation of what ‘denuclearisation’ meant as both sides had differing interpretations of the term, it was for the first time that Trump himself explicitly defined what he meant by it and did so directly to Kim. Since neither side gave a complete account of what transpired at the summit, the document is now finding fresh interpretation of the term.

It seems that Trump’s hawkish national security adviser John Bolton blew the lid by disclosing in television interviews about the document that Trump handed over to Kim, though he did not disclose the US expectation that North Korea transfer its nuclear weapons and fissile material to the US. If true, this was nothing short of Bolton’s long-held and hard-line “Libya model” of denuclearisation, which Pyongyang has rejected, terming it as insulting and provocative.

The demand for North Korea to hand over its weapons is nothing new; it was proposed by Bolton in 2004 and he revived the proposal after he became the national security adviser. Under the denuclearisation model of 2004, components of Libya’s nuclear programme were shipped to the US and its consequences are for all to see. Seven years after the denuclearisation agreement was reached between US and Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, the US took part in a NATO-led military operation against his government and he was overthrown by rebels and killed. No wonder, Pyongyang termed Bolton’s plan as “absurd” and noted the “miserable fate” that befell Gaddafi.

North Korea is obviously not expected to accept this Libya model. Whether the document clarified the US position and concise definition of what it meant by “final, fully verifiable denuclearisation” remains subject to speculation as the document remains classified.

Given that North Korea has heavily invested in its weaponisation and missile programmes for decades, it would be unthinkable for Kim to give up these so easily. No wonder, it threatened to suspend talks with the US and made clear its intention to rethink its self-imposed ban on missile and nuclear tests, terming the US demand as “gangster-like”. If the claim of Reuters having seen the English version of the document that called for “fully dismantling North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure, chemical and biological warfare programme and related dual-use capabilities; and ballistic missiles, launchers, and associated facilities” is to be believed, this is something impossible for Pyongyang to accept.

The four key points in the document entailed that North Korea provide a comprehensive declaration of its nuclear programme and full access to US and international inspectors; to halt all related activities and construction of any new facilities; to eliminate all nuclear infrastructure; and to transition all nuclear programme scientists and technicians to commercial activities.

Such unilateral demand on the part of the US without any sanctions relief was not music to Pyongyang’s ears. Trump was probably seized of the fact that Pyongyang would react strongly at any mention of the Libya model and clarified in May 2018 that he was not pursuing a Libya model and that he was looking for an agreement that would protect Kim.

So, was the Hanoi summit indeed a fiasco? Vu Minh Khuong of the National University of Singapore is of the view that the Hanoi summit strengthened three factors for shaping the foundation of any meaningful long-term agreement between the US and North Korea: mutual understanding, respect, and a shared vision of the future. He says the change in North Korea’s image from being an ‘evil empire’ in the US’ eyes to a potential long-term partner should be seen as a paradigm shift toward mutual understanding.

The good news is that Trump does not want to impose additional sanctions as he is aware that the North Korean people are already “suffering greatly”. That could be a huge concession for Pyongyang. However, Pyongyang says that its demand at the Hanoi summit was that the US lift five key economic sanctions, not all sanctions, and alleges that the US “has thrown away a golden opportunity”.

Trump’s stance is that sanctions would remain in place until Pyongyang completely and irreversibly dismantles its nuclear programme. Given the way negotiations have progressed, with no breakthrough from two summits, a return to heightened tensions is feared. 

(The writer is currently Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India)