North Korean leader Kim Jong-un once again got his own way recently by making empty threats of striking US military bases in Guam with ballistic missiles.
Perhaps his success in gaining the upper hand over the West through bluffing and blustering over and over again is a resounding testimony to the harsh fact that in world politics, where the law of the jungle prevails, it is always military might, not goodwill, that keeps a regime safe.
It then got me thinking: Kim may actually have learned that lesson from the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, whose eagerness to repair relations with the West by giving up his country’s nuclear weapons program had, ironically, proven his undoing and even cost him his life.
Speaking of Gaddafi, he was a one-of-a-kind tyrant. Despite his dictatorship and cruelty, the Libyans were a lot better off economically during his reign than they are now.
Not only was Libya ranked among the highest in the Arab world in terms of GDP per capita under Gaddafi’s rule, Libyans were also entitled to a whole bunch of social welfare benefits back in those days.
But of course, as we all know, there was an evil side to Gaddafi. For example, he sponsored Islamic terrorists when he was in power, and was allegedly behind the infamous Lockerbie bombing in 1988 that killed more than two hundred passengers on board a Pan Am airliner.
Besides, back in the 1980s Gaddafi was working very aggressively to acquire nuclear weapon technology, and was spending huge resources to build his chemical weapon arsenal.
Gaddafi’s nuclear program brought him into direct conflict with western powers, which were desperate to prevent Libya from becoming another Iran.
In order to curb his nuclear aggression, the United Nations imposed severe economic sanctions on Libya throughout the 1980s and 90s, and for years Gaddafi was portrayed as a mad man and a mass murderer by the western media.
Although it remains unknown how effective the UN sanctions were, what happened was, as Libya became increasingly isolated, and was feeling the pinch of the embargoes imposed by the West, Gaddafi, who had become an old man by the late 90s, began to soften his stance towards his western enemies.
In the meantime, unlike the previous Republican administrations, former US president Bill Clinton, along with former British prime minister Tony Blair, were a lot more eager to open up dialogue with Gaddafi and offer him terms as long as he agreed to give up his nuclear weapons program.
In particular, Blair put a lot of effort into mediating between Libya and the West, and became a close friend of Gaddafi’s.
Then in 2003, Gaddafi finally reached a reconciliation agreement with the West, under which he promised to terminate his country’s nuclear program and get rid of all weapons of mass destruction. In return, western powers agreed to lift the decade-long economic sanctions on Libya immediately and increase investment in the country.
However, as it turned out, Gaddafi’s capitulation didn’t pay off as he expected, as progress on western investment remained sluggish, not to mention that under the agreement, Libya had to pay a huge amount of compensation to western countries for their losses as a result of the terrorist attacks it had sponsored.
Worse still, many neoconservatives within the administration of George W. Bush only regarded the reconciliation agreement with Libya as nothing more than an act of political expediency. In fact their deep-rooted hostility and hate toward Gaddafi were so intense that they had never given up hope of toppling his regime some day.
And that day finally arrived in 2011, when the “Arab Spring” was taking the entire Middle East by storm. Shortly after the armed uprising against Gaddafi had broken out, western powers quickly threw their weight behind the opposition forces, and directly intervened in the conflict by providing anti-government troops with air support. The rest is history.
According to declassified information released by British intelligence recently, Libya’s nuclear weapons were only one step away from being fully operational by the time Gaddafi concluded the reconciliation treaty with the West.
And if Libya had nuclear weapons back in 2011, western powers would definitely have had second thoughts about intervening in the country’s civil war, and Gaddafi’s fate would have been rewritten.
Given the painful lesson of Gaddafi, it is easy to understand why Kim Jong-un is so desperate to develop nuclear capabilities regardless of international opposition.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 25
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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