What North Korea learned from Libya and Iraq

North Korea has fired off yet another missile, triggering another round of belligerent rhetoric from the US and more joint military exercises with South Korea with Donald Trump also castigating China for doing nothing. Why is North Korea doing this? It is because they have learned the lesson that has been painfully clear as even US intelligence chiefs recognize – that giving up your nuclear capability is an invitation for the US and its allies to invade you.

North Korea’s 33-year-old dictator Kim Jong-un is not crazy, said [Director of National Security Dan] Coats. In fact, he has “some rationale backing his actions” regarding the country’s nuclear weapons. That rationale is the way the U.S. has demonstrated that North Korea must keep them to ensure “survival for his regime, survival for his country.”

Kim, according to Coats, “has watched, I think, 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.” In particular, “The lessons that we learned out of Libya giving up its nukes … is, unfortunately: If you had nukes, never give them up. If you don’t have them, get them.”

In 2011, the U.S. and NATO conducted a bombing campaign to assist Libyan rebels in overthrowing the Gaddafi government. Gaddafi himself was captured by one rebel faction, who apparently sodomized him with a bayonet and then killed him.

You would definitely expect this to get the attention of North Korea’s ruling clique — especially given that Iraq had also disarmed and then been invaded, with its dictator executed by a howling mob.

And, indeed, North Korea said this explicitly at the time. Its foreign ministry stated, “The Libyan crisis is teaching the international community a grave lesson,” which was that the deal to rid Libya of weapons of mass destruction had been “an invasion tactic to disarm the country.”

Moreover, North Koreans and other countries can read, and so understand what America’s foreign policy elite has repeatedly explained why we want small countries to disarm. It’s not because we fear that they will use WMD in a first strike on us, since nations like North Korea understand that would immediately lead to their obliteration. Instead, our mandarins explicitly say the problem is that unconventional weapons help small countries deter us from attacking them.

A Gabrielle Rifkind writes after a visit to that country, the North Korean leadership has made their motivations clear.

When Kim Jong-Il, the father of the country’s current leader, was asked why he was spending his country’s scarce resources on ballistic missiles, he replied: “I have to let them know I have missiles because this is the only way the US will talk to me.” His son might put it differently:

“It’s the only way the US will not attack us, and the only way they will not remove me from power.”

One of the reasons it is so difficult to resolve conflict is that we fail to look at our own behaviour and how it is perceived by those we see as our foes. We do business with our friends and not with our enemies. De-escalation and dissolution of tension is seldom achieved by looking though a one-way lens. To Americans, US-led war games in the region may look like a defensive manoeuvre, but to North Korea they look antagonistic.

The Kims have seen the recent history of Iraq and Libya and must surely glean the lesson: give up your nuclear weapons programme and your regime does not survive.

Political leaders and media commentators in the US constantly discusses openly what countries they should invade and when in order to overthrow their governments and replace them with ones that are subservient to the US. And then they react angrily when the leaders of those countries take their words seriously and adopt measures to prevent it. The US media also loves to hype war rhetoric and ignore peace gestures, as we saw with the offer by the Taliban government to talk with the US about al Qaeda before the US government invaded Afghanistan in 2001. How many people were even aware of that offer? Rifkind says that the same is true now with North Korea.

It was hardly reported in the western media, but in January Pyongyang proposed that tensions could be eased if the US suspended joint military exercises with South Korea. North Korea would respond, they asserted, by suspending their nuclear tests. This freeze-freeze proposal was supported by China and Russia and more recently by South Korea’s new president. Washington rejected it, not wanting to acknowledge any equivalence between their war games and North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests.

There are no military options to consider in this stand-off. North Korea will hit back in a densely populated region: 25 million people live in Seoul alone. So the only option is engagement with Pyongyang, which needs to be quiet and off the record and without preconditions. First steps could include the scaling back of US and South Korean military exercises in exchange for the North agreeing to freeze its nuclear programme tied to confidence-building measures.

Unpalatable as it may seem, the regime has no intention of negotiating away its nuclear arsenal because it sees this as a survival insurance policy. Only when the security anxieties of all parties are considered can the issue of nuclear weapons be addressed.

If there ever was a time for calm, sober, strategic thinking in the US, that time is now. Unfortunately Donald Trump is president.


  1. says

    It’s happening in Iran now too. They signed an agreement that said they wouldn’t go after nuclear weapons, and now they’re being accused of “obeying the letter of the agreement but not the spirit”. Unfortunately there is only one way to protect yourself from American imperialism, and North Korea is doing it.

    On a side note, I find it hilarious that the Americans keep chastising China to do more about NK while at the same angering China by shipping over a billion dollars in arms to Taiwan. (On a side-side note, I’m for an independent Taiwan, it’s just the laughable American Exceptionalism on display here is ridiculous.)

  2. komarov says

    The Kims have seen the recent history of Iraq and Libya and must surely glean the lesson: give up your nuclear weapons programme and your regime does not survive.

    I’m worried about the lesson the US government might be learning from this: If a small nation (aka target) even thinks about nukes it’s time to act. Just make up some exuse -- again -- and walk all over them. Skip the sanctions and the sabre-rattling and go straight to power overwhelming.

    If there ever was a time for calm, sober, strategic thinking in the US, that time is now. Unfortunately Donald Trump is president.

    This is slightly off-topic (but then again maybe isn’t) but I was wondering recently how Trump would have handled the visit to Hiroshima. The thought made me shudder…

  3. lanir says

    China is the reason we don’t invade North Korea. They’d take it about as well as we would if all those angry Canadians got into a shouting match with China that ended with a red flag flying over an occupied Vancouver.

    In the short term, China is probably not too happy to be catching flack for this but I don’t know that they necessarily blame North Korea for the fiasco. They’re smart enough to read the news, too. And in the long run, a nuclear North Korea probably has more independence from China as well because it doesn’t need as much protecting. That’s just a guess though, I have zero knowledge of the situation.

  4. Dunc says

    China is the reason we don’t invade North Korea.

    China is the only reason we give a shit about North Korea in the first place. We don’t give a stuff about the Koreans on either side of the border, but it does provide an excellent excuse to keep a massive US military presence right on China’s doorstep, and in a strategically useful position to control some very important shipping lanes, particularly around Shanghai (which is the 3rd most important shipping location in the world, after the Panama and Suez canals).

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a great many initially puzzling things about US (and UK) foreign policy become much clearer after taking a look at a map of world shipping routes (such as this one).

  5. Mano Singham says


    Thanks for the link to that map. To emphasize your point, China has just signed a 99-year lease for the rights to control a new harbor on the southern tip of Sri Lanka which is shown on the map as a key hub on the core East-West shipping route.

  6. Dunc says

    Mano -- I didn’t know that, but it makes perfect sense.

    Many people nowadays seem not to realise the importance of shipping. It is quite literally the lifeblood of the world economy. Ever since the Age of Empire, control of key shipping routes and choke points has been one of the most important geo-strategic objectives of all of the major powers. That’s how a small, damp island in the North Atlantic became the ruler of the largest empire the world has ever seen, and shipping is even more important today than it was then.

  7. says

    That, and more resources to exploit (particularly oil) is also why we’re going to see more squabbling over the north as the ice melts away. Countries that were willing to accept Canadian claims to the territory are going to be a little less so now.

    I can see our country ceding some sovereignty to the US just to keep the Russians at bay.

  8. KG says

    Despite the apparent implication of your first quote, LIbya never actually had nukes -- the full article is clearer on that: it had chemical weapons and a rudimentary nuclear weapons programme (the article says biological weapons as well, but Libya never had these either). Not that that changes the basic North Korean logic you outline -- but it’s important to be clear about who has or had “WMDs”. (In practice of course, the real WMDs since 1945 -- in terms of number of deaths -- have been small arms, overwhelmingly manufactured and supplied by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.)

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