Libya as a Model for Disarmament? North Korea May See It Very Differently

“But you’re not saying we’re going to do everything just like we did with Libya,” he added. “What you’re doing is you’re drawing lessons from that experience. If you don’t do that, we’re going to end up right where we’ve ended up before multiple times over the last 25 years, which is failure.”

Among the lessons of Libya that apply to North Korea, he said, echoing Mr. Bolton’s comment, is the need for a genuine decision by Mr. Kim to completely give up his program, not just hedge. Another is to use all the tools available, including intelligence, economic leverage, diplomacy and threat of force. Another is to insist on complete “anywhere, anytime” access for inspectors to all potential nuclear sites.

But other specialists find the situations so different that the comparison is unhelpful. “Libya hardly had a nuclear weapons program,” said Robert J. Einhorn, a special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control in Mr. Obama’s State Department and now a scholar at the Brookings Institution. “It had crates with centrifuge parts it didn’t know what to do with. U.S. transport planes could land and carry the entire ‘program’ away.”

By contrast, said Mr. Einhorn, “North Korea has nuclear weapons. We don’t know how many. It has nuclear production facilities. We don’t know where they all are. Verifying what they have and dismantling all of it would take years.”

Colonel Qaddafi’s violent end was not directly related to the 2003 deal. Nearly eight years after his agreement with Mr. Bush, the Libyan dictator was confronted with a popular uprising as part of the Arab Spring 2011. He vowed to crush his opponents, including civilians, prompting Mr. Obama and European allies to intervene to stop him.

The Obama administration at the time denied any connection between the intervention and the previous nuclear disarmament. But Mr. Joseph said Mr. Obama should have given more thought to the consequences. “They made the decision to intervene without a day-after plan or any sense of what nonproliferation message that would send,” he said.

North Korea has made this connection before. In 2011, North Korea’s official news agency carried comments by a Foreign Ministry official calling the earlier nuclear bargain with Libya “an invasion tactic to disarm the country,” in effect a bait-and-switch. “The Libyan crisis is teaching the international community a grave lesson,” the ministry official said.

Each side sees its own very different lessons.