What Kim Jong-Il Learned from Qaddafi's Fall: A Response

Oct 27, 2011

By Eli Jacobs
A recent op-ed in the Atlantic (“What Kim Jong-Il Learned from Qaddafi's Fall: Never Disarm”) proposes that North Korea’s Kim Jong-il has learned from the overthrow and death of Gaddafi that he should not negotiate away his nuclear weapons. The argument is that Libya makes it clear to unfriendly states that a nuclear capability is the only reliable guarantor against West-led regime change. While it’s certainly true that a nuclear arsenal increases the costs of regime change, this argument misses a few crucial nuances.
First, North Korea was not going to give up its nuclear weapons in any case. The conclusion that a nuclear capability bolsters the regime’s security seems to be a long-term guiding principle of Kim Jong-il’s security policy. Further, forsaking nuclear weapons now will jeopardize the regime’s attempts to bolster the military credentials of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s son and successor. Ghadafi’s fall may change the way the DPRK justifies its nuclear capability, both domestically and internationally, but it in no way changed their calculations of self-interest.
Second, it is wrong that nuclear forces are a necessary panacea in attempts to deter regime change. Not only are nuclear weapons no guarantor of regime security, but conventional forces alone can often do the trick. For example, Iran’s geography and North Korea’s massive army would, combined with other non-nuclear factors, likely deter regime change pursued by military means.
Third, Kadafi’s is not the only regime we’ve overthrown recently. Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime was, by the standard set by The Atlantic, the opposite of Libya’s: recalcitrant, rumored to be producing WMD, and without normalized relations with the West. However, the two were the same in two crucial respects: repressive regimes that oversaw weak states. These commonalities proved much more pertinent than the difference with respect to their pursuit of nuclear weapons. The repressive regimes of Hussein and Qaddafi were, above all, weak. Indeed, Kaddafi did not trade away a military capability anywhere near that currently possessed by the DPRK; a deliverable Libyan nuke was years away, even by the paranoid analysis of 2003.
Thus, while North Korea will glean nothing but rhetoric from Gadhafi’s overthrow, states that may be similarly positioned (Syria and Venezuela come to mind) will be reminded the lesson of Iraq: if you wish to be repressive, do not also be weak.
Eli Jacobs is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues. The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.