There aren’t really examples of nations with substantial nuclear arsenals giving them up as part of a broad negotiated settlement and it working out. North Korea’s denuclearization, then, is very much uncharted territory. The Trump Administration, however, insists on drawing parallels to Libya.
National Security Adviser John Bolton in particular is trying to draw this comparison, even though there are obvious, dramatic differences between the two situations. North Korea is also furious about the Trump Administration’s talk of Libya, and it’s not hard to see why.
Libya never had functional nuclear weapons, and gave up its equipment in 2003 in hopes of ending its international isolation and reforming its image. North Korea’s interest in diplomatic engagement is one commonality, but makes it a particularly poor example, as Libya never really enjoyed much of a reward.
To make matters worse, by 2011 Libya’s “return” to the international community boiled down to a NATO-imposed regime change. That fact is not lost on North Korea, and indeed they’ve warned time and again that their disarmament must not be like what happened to Libya.
There are real reasons to question whether the US is a good partner for a denuclearization deal, since Libya gave up its weapons only to be attacked by NATO in 7 years, and Iran reached a deal on their nuclear program only for the US to disavow the pact in just over two years.
Bolton’s link to this makes it even worse in North Korea’s eyes, as they know that Bolton has long advocated for US-imposed regime change in North Korea. The North has seen its nuclear arsenal as a check against a US attack, and a comparison that suggests the US is trying to sucker them into giving up the arms first, to make a future attack easier, definitely isn’t going to help that denuclearization cause.