Will North Korea give up the bomb?
The answer may start becoming clear when South Korean President Moon Jae-in meets North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Friday.
While North Korea declared over the weekend that it would stop nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests and shut down its nuclear test site, it did not indicate that it will give up its nuclear arsenal or halt its production of missiles.
Moon and U.S. President Donald Trump, who is expected to meet with Kim in May or June, are still likely to find it very difficult to persuade Kim to dismantle his entire arsenal, which includes purported thermonuclear weapons and developmental ICBMs.
But other countries that developed or tried to develop nuclear weapons have agreed to abandon them in exchange for sanctions relief and compensation. None of these cases are directly applicable to North Korea, which advanced further and with greater zeal than any of the others.
A look at the past cases as Washington and its allies map out a denuclearization strategy for Pyongyang:
Shortly before he became Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton told Radio Free Asia that nuclear negotiations with North Korea should be similar to past discussions with Libya, which dismantled its rudimentary nuclear program in the 2000s.
Western nations lifted punitive measures and removed Libya’s name from the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism after former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi fulfilled his promise to turn over his nuclear materials, weapons components and bomb designs obtained on the black market.
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“We should insist that if this meeting is going to take place, it will be similar to discussions we had with Libya 13 or 14 years ago — how to pack up their nuclear weapons program and take it to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which is where the Libyan nuclear program (is),” Bolton said.
“If it’s anything other than a conversation about how to do that, then I think it shows it’s just camouflage for North Korea to continue working toward its long-sought objective of deliverable nuclear weapons.”
But some analysts say bringing up Libya would risk derailing any progress in negotiations with the North. Kim Jong Un took power weeks after Gadhafi’s gruesome death at the hands of rebel forces amid a popular uprising in October 2011. The North has frequently used Gadhafi’s death to justify its own nuclear development in the face of perceived U.S. threats.
“The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gadhafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programs of their own accord, yielding to the pressure of the U.S. and the West keen on their regime changes,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said after the country’s fourth nuclear test, in January 2016.
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Some experts see Iran’s case as the best available scenario for denuclearizing North Korea. Under a 2015 deal struck with six foreign powers — the United States, Britain, Russia, France, Germany and China — Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program, long suspected of being aimed at developing weapons, in return for billions of dollars in sanctions relief.
Accepting a 10-year restriction on uranium enrichment, Iran shut down thousands of centrifuges and exported almost its entire stockpile of bomb-making material. It disabled a heavy water plant seen as potentially capable of producing plutonium usable in weapons. The country also approved a stringent monitoring regime that allows International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to access any site suspected of nuclear weapons-related activities, including military facilities.
Aside from economic benefits, the deal allowed Tehran to save face by granting it the right to continue its atomic program for peaceful purposes, which some see as a potential selling point for Pyongyang.
Skeptics say North Korea’s weapons program is too advanced to realistically expect a similar cut to near zero. While it was obvious that oil-rich Iran would gain significantly from the removal of sanctions alone, Kim, who guides a broken economy that lacks real industry, may demand bigger rewards for restraining his nuclear program.
Ukraine and others
Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus inherited thousands of nuclear weapons after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but were persuaded by the United States to transfer the devices to Russia in return for economic support and security guarantees.
Analysts say the countries didn’t have clear security reasons to keep the weapons and that memories of the Chernobyl disaster also influenced Ukraine’s decision to abandon the nukes.
South Africa, which has large uranium reserves, had built about a half-dozen nuclear warheads but voluntary gave them up and dismantled its weapons program after the end of apartheid starting in 1991.