An unnoted consequence of the NATO military effort to topple the Gaddafi regime may be any hope of eventual denuclearization of North Korea or Iran. The September 2005 denuclearization agreement with North Korea made security guarantees to Pyongyang in exchange for verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons. The North Koreans signed, but promptly shunned the deal and proceeded to test nuclear weapons and, presumably, to work toward resuming production of fissile material and weaponization.

While the 2005 deal may be moot, there was once hope that the North Koreans would see the security, political, diplomatic, and economic benefits that would accrue from giving up their nuclear ambitions. Whether there was ever any serious support for such a trade-off in Pyongyang, that road not followed would now seem to be a dead end. Libya poses a clear lesson for Kim Jong-il: Gaddafi gave up his weapons of mass destruction, and look at the result. The U.S. and its allies have attacked Libya anyway – and now Libya has no deterrent. So what would be the credibility – in the eyes of Kim, the Korean Workers Party, and the Korean People’s Army – of U.S. security guarantees in return for denuclearization? North Korea could give up its weapons and then be even more vulnerable to attack should the U.S. and its allies decide that it was “misbehaving,” perhaps by ruthlessly suppressing a popular uprising.

Of course, the situation in Libya is different, some in the West might justifiably say, and Pyongyang could trust that the United States would keep any agreement not to attack the North. But is this how the situation is being perceived in North Korea, which has deep sympathy for Gaddafi and his plight at the hands of the West? Are the hardliners in North Korea, who have always argued for building and retaining nuclear weapons as vital to North Korean security, now likely to prevail in perpetuity? Is there a way to convince Kim and other leaders that they would be more secure if they gave up their nuclear weapons program?

What about Iran and other nuclear aspirants? Do the leaders of those countries— who fear that they, too, could be “victims” of Western aggression—now see nuclear weapons as an essential deterrent to ensure regime survival? Do they conclude that if Gaddafi had nuclear weapons or other WMD the West would not have launched an attack to “protect civilians” and he would be free to pursue the extermination of his opposition? Has the law of unintended consequences created a new conundrum for the West?

Banning Garrett is director of the Council’s Strategic Foresight Project.