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US President Trump abruptly canceled the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Thursday of last week. Yet one day later, he seemed to backtrack on that decision and said that the meeting could be resurrected after the US negotiators had had “very productive talks with Pyongyang.” So what has led to this renewed volatility in US relations with North Korea after the recent period of detente? The answer lies in US Vice President Mike Pence’s reference to a “Libyan solution.”
When Mike Pence mentioned the “Libyan solution,” he was referring to an agreement the US concluded with Libyan leader Muhammad Gaddafi in 2003. The agreement stipulated that in exchange for Gaddafi stopping his nuclear ambitions and allowing international weapons inspectors into the country, sanctions against Libya would be lifted and the country would be able to join the international community again.
However, for Kim Jong-un, Libya has a very different connotation and has in fact spurred him to accelerate the development of nuclear weapons ever since 2011, the year when Gaddafi was killed by Libyan rebels.
In Kim’s mind, the Libyan example was a blueprint of what can happen to a dictator who negotiates with Western powers and gives up his nuclear ambitions. In 2011, eight years after the agreement with the US was signed, a US led NATO coalition sided with Libyan insurgents and helped to overthrow Gaddafi.
This was a defining moment for Kim Jong-un, who decided to accelerate his nuclear program, increased the frequency of nuclear tests and finally was able to demonstrate to the world that North Korea had become a nuclear power.
The key goal for Kim is to get the sanctions, which are crippling his economy, lifted. Indeed, the development of Kim’s nuclear weapons has resulted in the toughest economic sanctions ever pronounced against Pyongyang as the US managed to persuade China, North Korea’s only ally and its largest trading partner, to side with the international community on sanctions against Kim’s regime.
It is however very unlikely that Kim would give up his nuclear arsenal, which he has worked so hard to develop. There are three reasons for this:
For all these reasons, Kim has consistently referred to abandoning his nuclear program as opposed to giving up his nuclear arsenal. In return for the latter, he will most likely make demands such as the removal of US troops from South Korea, which he knows the US is unlikely to accept.
This leads to two possible outcomes: