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North Korea Crisis

US and North Korea seek different paths to denuclearization

Washington eyes Libyan model of disarming before lifting sanctions, while Pyongyang prefers a phaseout

WASHINGTON/SEOUL -- Even with denuclearization likely on the agenda of an expected summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the two countries still have very different ideas of how the process should look.

The North Koreans confirmed through back-channel communications with the Americans that Kim is willing to discuss denuclearization, U.S. officials said Sunday. This news marked the first mention by either side of bilateral discussion about the summit. Trump said on Monday that he expects to meet with Kim in May or early June.

Yet optimism in Washington remains scant. Foreign-policy hawk John Bolton, a former American ambassador to the United Nations, started as Trump's new national security adviser on Monday. Bolton has long advocated a solution to the North Korea problem that resembles the end of Libya's nuclear program: ensuring complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization before easing sanctions or normalizing diplomatic relations.

In 2003, following secret negotiations with the U.S. and U.K., Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi declared that his country would give up all weapons of mass destruction. Tripoli agreed to submit to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, disclose all activities related to nuclear development, and destroy all ballistic missiles capable of traveling 300km or more. Gadhafi sought to keep his country from becoming isolated by economic and military pressure from parties including the U.S.

But Pyongyang sees this not as a model, but a failure to avoid repeating, pointing to Gadhafi's death in 2011 at the hands of NATO-supported rebels.

"The tragic situation" of Libya and Saddam Hussein's fall in Iraq shows the consequences of "putting down arms by temptation and atrocious military threat and blackmail of the U.S.," the Rodong Sinmun, a mouthpiece of the ruling Workers' Party, declared last October.

Kim expressed interest in returning to China-chaired six-party talks in a meeting last month with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The talks -- which also involved the U.S., Russia, Japan and South Korea -- were launched in 2003 to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program, but stalled after the last round in 2008.

Many analysts see the North's sudden interest in returning to the framework as an effort to head off a U.S.-led Libya-style approach by bringing in Beijing, improving prospects for a more gradual denuclearization.

At any rate, denuclearization will likely prove more complicated in North Korea, which has nearly completed its nuclear weapons development, than in a Libya that was only in the early stages of testing. Some in the South Korean government are beginning to argue that the process will need to be gradual and include easing economic sanctions. Seoul hopes to secure a joint statement on denuclearization when President Moon Jae-in meets with Kim on April 27.

The few other examples of countries that have given up nuclear arms include Ukraine, which inherited an arsenal from the Soviet Union after the communist superpower fell. The country signed agreements with global powers including the U.S. and Russia under which it would hand over its weapons to Moscow in return for security assurances and economic support.

This is similar to the endgame sought by North Korea, which looks to guarantee the survival of Kim's government in exchange for phasing out its nuclear program.

South Africa, on the other hand, moved to give up its nuclear weapons on its own after President F.W. de Klerk took office in 1989. He explained that the rationales behind the program -- the government's isolation from the international community due to the institutionalized racial discrimination known as apartheid, and the threat from communist troops in neighboring countries during the Cold War -- no longer applied.

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