Everything was going so well. North and South Korea participated in the Winter Olympics under a single flag. North Korea destroyed its last known nuclear test site. Kim Jong Un met with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in, and they each stepped on the other's territory. The North even scheduled talks with Donald Trump in July.
But, as of Thursday, those talks are off. What happened?
John Bolton, President Trump's hawkish National Security Advisor, said that the United States planned to use the Libya model to guide disarmament talks with North Korea. President Pence soon echoed the remark, and before long the North Koreans had threatened—twice—to withdraw from the meeting. On Thursday, Trump issued a statement officially cancelling the meeting.
John Bolton's claim that the United States planned to use the Libya model spooked the North Koreans—and rightfully so. The Libya model is a reference to the denuclearization of Libya in 2003, when President George W. Bush successfully removed Libya's nuclear development materials from the country. While generally considered a successful negotiation at the time by both Libya andthe United States, Kim Jong Un has a right to be concerned: less than ten years later, Libya underwent a revolution—and Qaddafi, the Libyan leader, did not live through it.
In 2011, the United States and several of its NATO allies took military action against Libya. Qaddafi had threatened to massacre civilians during the Arab Spring, and the United States believed that it had an obligation to intervene. The military action empowered rebels to overthrown the Libyan government, and Qaddafi was forced into hiding for several months. Then, one day, the rebels found him hiding in a ditch. After dragging him through the street, they killed him execution-style. Libya has since devolved into a dysfunctional state.
Regardless of the whether the United States was justified in its action against Libya, it sent an important message to other countries with nuclear ambitions: give up your weapons, and the United States may still turn on you. Indeed, perhaps nuclear security was more valuable than the so-called diplomatic security from working with the United States. And Kim Jong Un took notice.
When John Bolton claimed that the Libya model would guide the denuclearization talks, he reminded Kim Jong Un of the demise of a leader not unlike himself: Muammar al-Qaddafi. In doing so, he subtly derailed the entire negotiation. And I think he did it on purpose.
John Bolton wants a war. He does not support the Iran nuclear deal. He spews regime-change rhetoric about North Korea and Iran. He advocates for a nuclear strike on the Korean peninsula against the North. He is the last person to want peace talks. For him to reference the Libya model, then, is not simply to draw parallel to a successful case of denuclearization of a prior decade. To the North Koreans, central to the Libya model is also what comes several years after denuclearization: regime change.
John Bolton wanted a war, but saw peace. And he did what he thought was necessary to ensure that peace was not the outcome, even if it meant derailing talks spearheaded by his own President. Unfortunately for Bolton, peace talks are still underway—the United States just isn't a part of them. Just this week, South Korean president Moon Jae-in met with Kim Jong Un in a surprise inter-Korean summit.
North Korean media called him a "bloodsucker." Maybe they're on to something.
Cover photo: John Bolton, from Wikimedia Commons.