When North Korea suddenly threw a historic summit meeting with the United States into question on Wednesday, it cited — five times — the fate of another country and another leader, half a world away, as an example of why no one should trust American efforts to disarm another nation.
The country was Libya, and the leader was Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, who made a bad bet that he could swap his nascent nuclear program for economic integration with the West. That deal, executed by the Bush administration nearly 15 years ago, is a footnote to American histories of that era.
But it has always loomed large for the North Koreans.
The planned June 12 meeting between President Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has been regarded by disarmament advocates as an opportunity to end decades of animosity between North Korea and the United States.
But in the mind of Mr. Trump’s new national security adviser, John R. Bolton, who was an architect of the Libya deal, that is the model of how things should play out as the two leaders meet: Complete nuclear disarmament, in return for the promise of economic integration. Mr. Bolton said as much last weekend.
In issuing its threat to back out of the summit meeting, the North referred to Mr. Bolton’s comments, calling them a “Libya mode of nuclear abandonment.”
So why is the Libya model suddenly becoming a sticking point in the meeting between President Trump and Mr. Kim?
What happened in Libya?
In 2003, Colonel Qaddafi saw the American invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, and may well have concluded that he was next. In a lengthy, secret set of negotiations with Britain and the United States, he agreed to voluntarily hand over the equipment he had purchased from A.Q. Khan, a leader of the Pakistani nuclear program. North Korea and Iran had also been customers of Dr. Khan, who was later placed under house arrest after his activities were exposed.
The Libya material was flown out of the country, much of it placed at an American weapons laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. When President George W. Bush announced the deal, he made a clear reference to North Korea and Iran when he said, “I hope other leaders will find an example” in Libya’s action.
What happened less than a decade later might be at the heart of what Kim Jong-un appears to fear.
The United States and its