“Kim’s long-term goal is to come to some sort of big-power agreement with the U.S. and to remove U.S. presence from the peninsula,” Yong Suk Lee, the deputy director of the C.I.A.’s Korea mission center, said at a conference at George Washington University in October, when the North was still actively conducting nuclear and missile tests. But he also said he believed there was an inherent conservatism to the North Korean elite that would stop them from provoking American military action.
Mr. Bolton has repeatedly cited the case of Libya, which turned over all of its nuclear-related equipment in 2003, as a model to follow for denuclearization. Libya received promises of economic integration with the West, little of which happened.
In 2011, its leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, was overthrown, dragged from a ditch and killed. The North Koreans noticed, and much of the statement issued last week was a denunciation of Mr. Bolton and a vow never to bend to “great powers” seeking a similar deal.
But when reporters asked Mr. Trump about Libya, he managed, in one stroke, to contradict Mr. Bolton and misconstrue the importance of the trade of the nuclear program for economic rewards.
“The Libyan model isn’t a model that we have at all, when we’re thinking of North Korea,” Mr. Trump said. “If you look at that model with Qaddafi, that was a total decimation. We went in there to beat him.” That referred to Western military intervention in 2011, not to the nuclear disarmament that came eight years before.
“Now that model would take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely,” Mr. Trump warned, seeming to repeat exactly the threat that the North Koreans had warned against. “But if we make a deal, I think Kim Jong-un is going to be very, very happy.”
Mr. Trump may be right: Mr. Kim presumably has many decades ahead of him as North Korea’s leader and has much to gain from improved economic conditions. But he would be betting his entire country on any nuclear deal, and most intelligence analyses in recent years have cast doubt that he, or the North Korean elite, would be willing to give up the security provided by nuclear arms.