February 2021 marks ten years since the beginning of NATO military operations against the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, a campaign which would have far reaching consequences not only in Africa and the Arab world but also far beyond. For North Korea in particular, Libya’s fate would be widely cited as a key demonstration of the rationale behind policy decisions pertaining to its military modernisation and its pursuit of a ballistic missile and nuclear deterrent. North Korea and Libya had multiple similarities in their foreign policy alignments since the latter was established as a republic and its Western-aligned monarchy was overthrown in 1969. The two countries both contributed to the Egyptian-led war effort against Israel in October 1973, and subsequently provided assistance to Syria during the Lebanon War in the 1980s when Syrian forces had frequently clashed with Israel and the United States. Both sided with and sold arms to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, supported the MPLA in the Angolan Civil War, and were leading backers of the South African ANC and the Zimbabwe African National Union during the 1980s. Beyond similarities in their foreign policies which pitted both firmly against Western interests, large numbers of North Koreans were employed in Libya in particular in the health sector. Trade with the oil rich country was highly prized after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the USSR left Pyongyang economically isolated.
The American-led military campaign in Libya received considerable coverage in North Korea – and has arguably served to justify many of its security related policy decisions by demonstrating unviability of an alternative path. In the early 2000s, following the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Libya had sought rapprochement with Washington and agreed in return to make extensive concessions relating to its weapons of mass destruction and its ballistic missile deterrent. American terms included not only extensive restrictions on the county’s nuclear activities and the complete dismantling of its strategic missile and chemical deterrents, but also intrusive inspections of military facilities across Libya. The Libyan government assented in the hope of improving ties with the Western world, seeing unilateral economic sanctions lifted, and reducing tensions. Following the agreement’s implementation U.S. President George W. Bush hailed the African state as a “model for other countries” and pledged: “Leaders who abandon the pursuit of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them, will find an open path to better relations with the United States and other free nations.” Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance and Implementation, Paula DeSutter, stated to much the same effect: “we want to have lessons learned from [Libya’s disarmament] because we want Libya to be a model for other countries,” with multiple Western analysts highlighting that Libya could serve as a model for North Korea and Iran. As it was, the consequences of Libya’s disarmament would serve as a key lesson to other American adversaries – albeit in a very different way to how the Bush administration had likely envisioned.
Following the outbreak of unrest in Libya in late January 2011, which according to Libyan sources had seen rioters attempt to access weapons depots and attack security forces, the three Western permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Britain, France and the United States pressed for a resolution to protect Libyan civilians. Evidence that Libyan civilians were ever in danger from their government was highly questionable, with Foreign Policy among others noting that the Western claim of an imminent massacre by government forces unless NATO launched an offensive “does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.” Nevertheless, when the UNSC’s only two non-Western permanent members China and Russia failed to veto the resolution, it was used as a pretext for large scale NATO air and missile strikes against Libya lasting several months.
Although the UNSC had not provided a mandate for the forced overthrow of the Libyan government or recognised the Western-backed opposition as a legitimate government, the U.S. and its allies had in the past launched similar campaigns without any kind of UN mandate whatsoever such as the invasions of Grenada, Panama and Iraq and the bombing of Yugoslavia and later Syria. Many of these were launched with the express opposition of China and Russia and were widely criticised and deemed illegal – meaning even if UNSC resolutions on Libya had been vetoed there was a significant chance that Western attacks would have gone ahead regardless. With the country’s longstanding leader Muammar Gaddafi and much of the national leadership assassinated or otherwise killed during the war, Libya subsequently saw over a decade of instability which could well last into the latter half of the 2020s. Consequences included a sharp decline in living standards – “a completely failed state” in the words of the former U.S. ambassador – with racially motivated massacres, torture and mass rapes targeting the country’s black African minority by anti-government militias and the emergence of widespread human trafficking and open slave markets. The rise of the Islamic State terror group and of Al Qaeda-linked jihadist militant forces in Libya, which had previously been kept in check by the central government, was another notable consequence.
Libya’s fate was observed closely in Pyongyang, and is a subject North Korea’s overseas communities have raised often in conversation. One Pyongyang citizen, the daughter of two doctors who grew up in Libya, recalled fondly her memories of going to school in the country and of frequently travelling abroad to Egypt and other neighbouring countries on holidays. She was unusually tearful when discussing the post-2011 situation in Libya and wondering what had happened to the people she had grown up with. Another, a diplomat who had spent much time in Africa, looked particularly downcast when referring to Libya’s fate as “a real tragedy.” North Korea’s foreign ministry stated regarding the lessons of Tripoli’s decision to abandon its deterrent capabilities: “Libya’s nuclear dismantlement much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression by which the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as ‘guarantee of security’ and ‘improvement of relations’ to disarm and then swallow it up by force.” Pyongyang believed that in exchange for a lifting of sanctions and better relations Libya “took the economic bait, foolishly disarmed themselves, and once they were defenceless, were mercilessly punished by the West.”
It is notable that conclusions drawn by the North Korean government were echoed in several prominent Western assessments regarding what the Western attack on Libya meant for Pyongyang. The Donald Trump administration’s Director of National Intelligence Daniel R. Coats highlighted that Libya’s fate demonstrated why it was strongly against Pyongyang’s national security interests to disarm. He stated that the North Korean leadership “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… 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.”
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who had played a key role in facilitating talks between the Bill Clinton administration and the Pyongyang leadership in the 1990s, similarly noted that North Korea’s government was “completely rational and dedicated to the preservation of their regime” and that there was ‘no remaining chance that it will agree to a total denuclearization, as it has seen what happened in a denuclearized Libya and assessed the doubtful status of U.S. adherence to the Iran nuclear agreement.” Beyond the Western world, figures from Russian President Vladimir Putin to experts at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies similarly stressed that the example made of Libya had made it all but impossible for North Korea to abandon its deterrent capabilities. Libya had indeed been made an example to the West’s other adversaries – but it was an example which reinforced precisely the behaviors which the U.S. and its allies had strongly sought to discourage.
Beyond Libya’s abandonment of its strategic deterrent was an abandonment of military readiness and a neglect for military modernisation – an issue exacerbated by the fact that it had recently given Western inspectors extensive access to military facilities across the country. While the country had fielded by far the most impressive inventory of combat aircraft and air defence systems on the African continent during the 1980s, these capabilities had subsequently been almost entirely neglected. As security expert Dr. Carlo Kopp noted in a 2011 paper: “the complete obsolescence and poor state of repair in Libya’s IADS [Integrated Air Defence Systems] rendered Libya incapable of producing any useful combat effect. Libya’s IADS was demonstrably the least challenging IADS that Western air power has confronted since the defeat of Saddam IADS in 1991…. The reality that the Libyan IADS was an unchallenging poorly serviced 25 – 30 year old relic lacking any of the modern technologies now being globally exported from Russia and China.” As Kopp among others had stressed, even without a strategic deterrent a modernised Libyan conventional military able to seriously threaten attacking NATO aircraft and warships could have seriously complicated and potentially deterred Western attacks. Although Libya had planned to acquire modern combat jets and air defence systems, repeated delays due to a sense of security following rapprochement with the West meant that none were delivered before the conflict
When interviewed during the war in 2011 Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saif Al Islam spoke of what he retrospectively saw to be the cause of Libya’s downfall, which he referred to as “a good lesson for everybody.” Although Muammar Gaddafi had been urged by the West to advise North Korea and Iran to follow a “Libya model” for disarmament, his son revealed that the Libyan government had been strongly advised by both Pyongyang and Tehran not to abandon its strategic deterrent. Saif Al Islam referred to his country’s failure to take this advise and its subsequent steps to disarm as the country’s “critical mistake,” stating: “You give up your weapons of mass destruction, you stop developing long range missiles, you become very friendly with the West and this is the result. So what does this mean, it means this is a message to everybody that you have to be strong. You never trust them, and you have to be always on alert. Otherwise those people (the Western bloc), they don’t have friends. Overnight they change their mind and they start bombing us, and the same thing could happen to any other country… One of our big mistakes was that we delayed buying new weapons, especially from Russia, it was a big mistake. And we delayed building a strong army because we thought that we will not fight again, the Americans, the Europeans are our friends [since forming positive relations in 2003.]”
Despite their similar foreign policy alignments during the Cold War, post-Cold War Libya was in many ways the precise opposite of North Korea in terms of security policy and a willingness to place faith in Western security guarantees. Where Tripoli reduced its emphasis on its military after the Cold War, Pyongyang doubled down on the need for a strong defence and rather than decline saw its military capabilities improve significantly over the following decades. Libya’s grim fate resonated strongly with North Korea’s portrayals both in popular media and the education system of the consequences of being targeted by a Western military campaign – as perhaps best symbolised by the Sinchon War Atrocities Museum. The Libyan War thus effectively reinforced Pyongyang’s pre-existing inclinations towards prioritising military modernisation and readiness to persevere with a strategic deterrence program even if at the expense of economic sanctions.
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