The twice-scheduled June 12 summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un—if indeed it occurs—will almost certainly conclude without a substantive agreement to denuclearize North Korea. According to recent reports by both the Pentagon and the CIA, the Kim regime’s security perceptions remain deeply rooted in the need for long-term possession of nuclear weapons. As Kim told North Koreans in his 2018 New Year’s address, their state “has at last come to possess a powerful and reliable war deterrent, which no force and nothing can reverse.”
A Trump-Kim summit would be the first meeting between a sitting US president and his North Korean counterpart since North Korea’s inception as a state 70 years ago, but the summit process so far reflects Trump’s penchant for style over substance. Denuclearizing North Korea could take as many as 15 years, yet the original scheduling for the meeting allowed for less than 100 days of preparation. Now that the summit has been cancelled and rescheduled, available time for preparation has probably been compressed even further. After Trump cancelled the summit on May 24, Richard Armitage—deputy secretary of state under George W. Bush—told the Financial Times that the United States had “dodged a bullet” when the meeting fell through. “I’m quite sure,” Armitage said, “[that] our president had not done a minute of preparation. Kim was clearly ready from A to Z.” Will Trump spend a minute on preparation now that the summit is back on?
At least one administration member is better prepared than Trump—national security advisor John Bolton, who recently asserted that any agreement with North Korea should follow “the Libya model.” North Korea seems to understand “the Libya model” as code for disarmament followed by grisly regime change. But Bolton, despite his reputation for unreasonable policy stances, may have used the phrase as shorthand for a comprehensive and surprisingly logical approach to North Korean disarmament.
This year’s model. Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was entrenched in a belief that the agreement was not broad enough to guarantee international security. The deal, according to its critics, was “fatally flawed.” It did not halt Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, address Iran’s support for nations hostile to the United States, or establish irreversible mechanisms to ensure Tehran’s permanent abandonment of all weapons of mass destruction. But no such shortcomings were evident in 2003 when Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi agreed to renounce his nuclear weapons program.
Strictly speaking, “the Libya model” refers to actions taken in 2002 and 2003 by Qaddafi and US and British intelligence officials and policy makers. These actions culminated in Libya’s admission of and compensation for previous acts of state-sponsored terrorism; abandonment of its embryonic nuclear weapons program; and declaration and dismantlement of its large chemical weapons enterprises. Libya also agreed to provide foreign inspectors with information pertaining to any Libyan biological weapons program—though, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “no concrete evidence of an existing biological weapon [program] was uncovered.”
In 2004, Paula DeSutter—then the State Department’s assistant secretary for verification and compliance—noted that what would become known as “the Libya model” was “one of those rare times that a state has volunteered to rid itself of its WMD programs—and it is a first for a state sponsor of terror to do so without regime change.” DeSutter asserted that “We must do our best to ensure that Libya’s voluntary decision stands as a model for others as a pathway to restore themselves to international legitimacy.” That, of course, is not what happened—Qaddafi was killed by militants in 2011 amid an uprising in which NATO had intervened, putatively to enforce a UN resolution that demanded a ceasefire.
So what did Bolton mean when he discussed “the Libya model?” I recently conducted an interview with Troy Stangarone, senior director for congressional affairs and trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. Stangarone thinks Bolton meant to say that any North Korea deal must encompass, along with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, the chemical weapons stockpiles that Pyongyang almost certainly possesses and the biological weapons enterprise that it might also operate. Failing to include biological and chemical weapons in a prospective nuclear deal, Stangarone astutely noted, would imperil the deal’s long-term viability. If North Korea agreed to eliminate its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles but later conducted a chemical weapons operation along the lines of the Kim Jong-nam assassination, Stangarone believes that support for the agreement would be undermined. “We saw this with the Iran deal,” he said. The deal’s critics “often focused on Iranian behaviors the agreement didn’t address.”
Stangarone wrote in April that any effort to denuclearize North Korea without requiring Pyongyang to declare its chemical weapons stockpile and become party to the Chemical Weapons Convention might run aground on the issue of UN sanctions. “Inevitably,” Stangarone wrote, “North Korea will seek sanctions relief as part of any agreement to give up its nuclear program. However, as part of UN Security Council Resolution 2270, North Korea is required … to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and meet the commitments [that accession] would entail. Until it takes those steps, UN sanctions should not be loosened.”
On the Korean Peninsula, a precedent already exists for eliminating chemical weapons—South Korea’s. Seoul undoubtedly operated a chemical weapons program at one time (though, when it declared its program, it invoked the Chemical Weapons Convention’s confidentiality clause and thus escaped being identified except as a “state party” to the treaty). In a recent e-mail to this author, chemical weapons expert Paul Walker estimated South Korea’s one-time stockpile at 605 metric tons. In July 2008, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—the intergovernmental body tasked with implementing the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention—announced that “a state party”—South Korea—had “completed the destruction of its entire chemical weapons stockpile.”
North Korea denies possessing chemical weapons, but it likely has a stockpile significantly larger than its southern neighbor once did. The US intelligence community has long assessed that “North Korea has … a longstanding [chemical weapons] program… [and] possesses a stockpile of agents.” General Curtis Scaparrotti, then–commander of United States Forces Korea, testified to Congress in 2015 that North Korea possessed “one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles.” Open-source estimates of North Korea’s chemical weapons stockpile typically assay the inventory at 2,500 to 5,000 tons.
Half a doctrine short. Nations within range of North Korea’s chemical weapons—Japan in particular—have gone to great lengths to make sure Trump does not abandon their justifiable chemical concerns during his summit with Kim. An April White House statement acknowledged that “President Trump and Prime Minister Abe … reaffirmed that North Korea needs to abandon all weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.” Still, Trump is not generally known for an informed or consistent approach to international affairs, and it is easy to understand why he and Kim might seek an agreement that does little to substantively resolve the international challenges posed by North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction. Consequently, whatever emerges from the summit will likely be described as a “hopeful” or “encouraging” development, and will be easy to spin for domestic audiences.
To be sure, a nuclear agreement with North Korea will be much easier to reach if it doesn’t mention the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention, or the assistance that North Korea has likely provided to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the form of materiel for the manufacture of chemical warfare agents. But the Trump administration, by clearly enunciating its reasons for abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, has created one-half of a doctrine for nuclear agreements: the conditions under which the United States will withdraw support. The second half of the Trump doctrine must complete the logical argument begun in the first half—that is, it must establish how the “lessons” of the Iran nuclear deal are to be translated into future nuclear agreements. The administration is therefore obligated to insist that North Korea’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention be treated as a sine qua non for significant sanctions relief. Indeed, the administration must insist that a North Korea deal exhibit none of the deficiencies or omissions that, in its telling, were exhibited by the Iran deal.
For once, John Bolton is right: Any North Korea nuclear agreement must follow the Libya model.