Gaddafi’s Death and North Korea

Jaesung Ryu (East Asia Institute) and Marcus Noland (PIIE)



Since February we have been following North Korean-related aspects of the Libya saga.Unfortunately, the recent death of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi will not bring this sorry tale to a close.

So far, North Korean media has not made any direct comments about Gaddafi’s death, perhaps because of uncertainty about how to "interpret" events in the Middle East to the public.  So perhaps it was coincidence, perhaps not, that two days after Gaddafi’s death, according to Donga Ilbo, Kim Jong-il made an unannounced visit to his personal bodyguard detachment, the 985th unit of the Korea People’s Army (KPA), with putative heir Kim Jong-un, and reputed regent, Jang Song-taek, in tow. Whether or not there is a real perceived risk, from the North’s perspective, of a homegrown Jasmine revolution, there does appear to be a revealed preference to keeping the country in the dark.

One aspect of this is the fate of North Koreans apparently left stranded in Libya and other parts of the Middle East. South Korea’s Yonhap News has reported that about 200 DPRK nationals in Libya continue to be stuck in limbo, as are some of their compatriots in Egypt. The report suggests that there seems to be some concern by the regime that these “witnesses to transformation” might be the proverbial spark that set the prairie alight if allowed to return home.

But apart from such humanitarian concerns, the world is awash in analyses (see for example Kenneth Waltz or Alexander Vorontsov) that reach the common conclusion we have repeatedly discussed in this blog, namely that despite State Department wishful thinking, the likely lesson that the North Koreans will draw from the Libyan experience is the need to retain their nukes.

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