When North Korea suddenly threw a historic summit meeting with the United States into question on Wednesday, it cited — five times — the fate of another country and another leader, half a world away, as an example of why no one should trust American efforts to disarm another nation.
The country was Libya, and the leader was Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, who made a bad bet that he could swap his nascent nuclear program for economic integration with the West. That deal, executed by the Bush administration nearly 15 years ago, is a footnote to American histories of that era.
But it has always loomed large for the North Koreans.
The planned June 12 meeting between President Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has been regarded by disarmament advocates as an opportunity to end decades of animosity between North Korea and the United States.
But in the mind of Mr. Trump’s new national security adviser, John R. Bolton, who was an architect of the Libya deal, that is the model of how things should play out as the two leaders meet: Complete nuclear disarmament, in return for the promise of economic integration. Mr. Bolton said as much last weekend.
In issuing its threat to back out of the summit meeting, the North referred to Mr. Bolton’s comments, calling them a “Libya mode of nuclear abandonment.”
So why is the Libya model suddenly becoming a sticking point in the meeting between President Trump and Mr. Kim?
What happened in Libya?
In 2003, Colonel Qaddafi saw the American invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, and may well have concluded that he was next. In a lengthy, secret set of negotiations with Britain and the United States, he agreed to voluntarily hand over the equipment he had purchased from A.Q. Khan, a leader of the Pakistani nuclear program. North Korea and Iran had also been customers of Dr. Khan, who was later placed under house arrest after his activities were exposed.
The Libya material was flown out of the country, much of it placed at an American weapons laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. When President George W. Bush announced the deal, he made a clear reference to North Korea and Iran when he said, “I hope other leaders will find an example” in Libya’s action.
What happened less than a decade later might be at the heart of what Kim Jong-un appears to fear.
The United States and its European allies began a military action against Libya in 2011 to prevent Colonel Qaddafi’s threatened massacre of civilians. President Obama acceded to arguments from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to join the European-led action.
But no one in the Situation Room debated what message the decision to turn on Colonel Qaddafi might send to other countries that the United States was trying to persuade to relinquish their weapons, according to interviews conducted later with more than a half-dozen people engaged in the discussion.
The Libya intervention allowed anti-government rebels to put Colonel Qaddafi on the run, and months later they pulled him from a ditch and killed him. Since then, Libya has devolved into a dysfunctional state. And North Korea has taken notice.
North Korea’s Libya fears
North Korea’s fear of meeting the same fate as Libya — or maybe more specifically its leader meeting the same fate as Colonel Qaddafi — has appeared to factor into North Korea’s thinking about its own weapons program for years.
In 2011, after the United States and allies launched airstrikes in Libya, North Korea’s foreign minister said that the denuclearization of the North African nation had been an “an invasion tactic to disarm the country.”
After Colonel Qaddafi was killed, the narrative in North Korea became clear: Had he not surrendered his nuclear program, North Korean officials said, he might still be alive.
In 2016, shortly after North Korea conducted a nuclear test, its state-run news outlet, the Korean Central News Agency, made direct reference to Libya and Iraq. “History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasured sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression,” the agency said.
“The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Qaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programs of their own accord,” it said.
But North Korea was also clear to draw a line between itself and the two nations. Its statement on Wednesday said it was off base to suggest that the “dignified state” of North Korea could share the same destiny as Libya or Iraq, which “collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers.”
“The world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq, which have met miserable fates,” the statement said. The North made explicit reference to a homegrown achievement that Colonel Qaddafi never neared: It had already become a nuclear-armed country.
Unlike North Korea, Libya was not actually a nuclear weapons state. During inspections in 2003, the Americans discovered Libya had centrifuges that could be used to produce highly enriched uranium — fuel for a bomb.
“It is absolutely absurd to dare compare the D.P.R.K., a nuclear weapon state, to Libya, which had been at the initial state of nuclear development,” the North Korean statement said, using the initials for the country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
What is the White House saying about the Libya model?
North Korea’s statement on Wednesday also made direct reference to Mr. Bolton.
In his first televised interviews after becoming national security adviser last month, Mr. Bolton told “Face the Nation” on CBS and “Fox News Sunday” that Libya’s denuclearization was what he envisioned when moving ahead with North Korea talks.
“We have very much in mind the Libya model from 2003, 2004,” he said on Fox. “There are obviously differences. The Libyan program was much smaller, but that was basically the agreement that we made.”
When a reporter asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, specifically about the Libya model and if the administration’s approach to North Korea would be the same, she backed away from Mr. Bolton’s comparison.
“I haven’t seen that as part of any discussions, so I am not aware that that’s a model that we are using,” Ms. Sanders said Wednesday. “There is not a cookie cutter on how this works.”