North Korea Has Nuclear Weapons So It Won't End Up Like Libya

A B-1 Lancer awaits a pre-flight inspection. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force

North Korea has learned from the Qaddafi regime the importance of maintaining its nukes.

As many experts have predicted, North Korea is trending to become the Trump administration’s first major foreign-policy crisis. The latest developments continue to reinforce that trend.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Donald Trump threatened to take unilateral action to stop the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s nuclear program unless China stepped in to address the issue. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, echoed that stance not long after Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis indicated that he views the DPRK as the gravest threat to America. The week prior to that, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the Obama-era strategy of “strategic patience” was over and warned that military action was an option if North Korea did not unilaterally disarm.

While the early post-war time period occasionally involved troubling acts of violence that resulted in the deaths of Americans, the United States and North Korea have since avoided such encounters (the same cannot be said for South Korea). And while no American president ever dismissed force as an option, Trump is unique in the blunt and direct manner he has used to challenge the reclusive regime. Which begs the question—has a clash between the United States and North Korea become inevitable?

And should the confrontation come to blows, what will it look like? While the escalating war of words is reminiscent of George W. Bush and his approach towards Iraq early last decade, it also brings back memories of the first foreign-policy challenge handled by America’s fortieth president over three decades ago.

During the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan’s foreign-policy platform focused on confronting and, ultimately, defeating the Soviet Union. Yet the new president’s first foreign-policy challenge was not laid out by Moscow. Instead, it was Third World Libya, led by notorious dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, that first clashed with Reagan. It was surprising, given the North African nation received no mention in the 1980 Republican Party platform. While North Korea received mention, it was also overshadowed by the Middle East in the Trump campaign’s foreign-policy platform.

Like U.S.-North Korea relations, U.S.-Libyan relations were fraught with tension from the beginning, following the 1969 coup that brought Qaddafi to power. Like North Korea, Libya earned the reputation of “rogue state,” defying international norms and engaging in destabilizing behavior in the region. And, like the North Korean dictatorial dynasty, Qaddafi dabbled in his own unique brand of socialism, ruled with a cult of personality, and was viewed by many as megalomaniacal.

Washington initially avoided confrontation with Tripoli, but the United States grew increasingly intolerant of Qaddafi’s behavior, which included an assassination attempt on the American ambassador to Egypt. Eventually, Qaddafi earned a spot on the state sponsor of terrorism list in 1979. As Reagan went on watch in 1981, tensions escalated. “The Ronald” zeroed his sights on the man he referred to as the “mad dog of the Middle East,” owing to his hostility towards Israel, a series of assassinations, support for terrorism and indications that he was seeking nuclear weapons.

In 1973, Libya had laid an illegitimate claim to the Gulf of Sidra, the body of water immediately bordering the Libyan coast. In August 1981, Reagan ordered a Freedom of Navigation (FoN) operation to be executed by a naval task force centered on two aircraft carriers. The group was immediately challenged; on August 19, two Libyan fighter jets headed towards the group and were intercepted by two U.S. Navy fighters. The Libyans shot first, but missed; the Americans responded by downing both enemy aircraft. The incident proved to Libya and the world the Reagan administration was serious about its confrontational posture.

The remainder of Reagan’s first term saw no further clashes between U.S. and Libyan military forces, but the hostility persisted. The United States applied sanctions against Libya and multiple terrorist attacks in the mid-1980s were attributed to Qaddafi by Washington. The rhetoric on both sides was equally heated, with the “Mad Dog” also anointed as “public enemy number one.” It seemed only a matter of time before tensions flared into fighting once again.