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Phebe Kim is an NK News contributor based in Washington DC. She is a Fulbright Korea Grantee, 2010-2012 and is currently a M.A. Candidate at Georgetown University.
The Obama administration should be talking with China, working to convince it to cut off support to North Korea, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton told NK News last Wednesday.
Bolton, currently an American Enterprise Institute senior fellow and Fox News contributor, believes that the only peaceful solution to the North Korean security threat is to achieve Korean reunification by persuading China to withdraw support for the Kim regime. The Chinese leadership is changing its views about North Korea as younger Chinese leaders “see that North Korea is a pretty ugly piece of baggage,” he states.
Despite advocating for a diplomatic solution via bilateral talks at the presidential level, Bolton, who served as UN ambassador from 2005-2006 under the George W. Bush administration, doesn’t believe that international governance mechanisms such as the UN and International Criminal Court (ICC) are effective channels to deal with the North Korean regime.
“North Korea is a terrorist state,” he said, insisting that the U.S. must not ignore nor trade with the North in exchange for American hostages. Instead, the U.S. should take note of changing Chinese views and work bilaterally with them to end the North Korean regime.
NK News: You’ve talked a lot about “peaceful Korean reunification” being the optimum strategy for resolving the North Korea issue. Can you elaborate on how you see this happening and how Washington should promote or is promoting this between the two Koreas? Would the “confederation” system once agreed to by Kim Il Sung be a starter?
Bolton: I don’t think the current administration is doing anything on Korean reunification, and I don’t expect it to. Nor do I think that anything like confederation can really work. The North Koreans would not agree to anything meaningful (now). The real way to approach reunification is through China. They supply 90 percent of North Korea’s energy. They can make all the difference in the world. The question is how you persuade China that a reunited Korea is in their interest.
‘Ultimately, it is in China’s interest to see peace and stability on the peninsula, eliminate the North Korean nuclear weapons program, and reduce tensions in Northeast Asia’
(China is) worried that a reunited Korea would see American troops on the Yalu River, and they don’t like that idea. They haven’t liked it since 1950, and they don’t like it today. But there is a way to make this work because the United States doesn’t want American troops on the Yalu River. Our presence in South Korea is not to threaten China.
There are increasingly younger Chinese leaders who see that North Korea is a pretty ugly piece of baggage. Ultimately, it is in China’s interest to see peace and stability on the peninsula, eliminate the North Korean nuclear weapons program, and reduce tensions in Northeast Asia. China says it wants stability in Northeast Asia to help promote Chinese economic development. That analysis is correct. (That’s never going to happen) as long as there is a North Korea.
I don’t have any illusions that (it is not) difficult to persuade Beijing of this. I think it will take some time, which is why I would begin sooner rather than later. But, let’s face it. The division of Korea is unnatural. It’s a hangover from the Cold War and, while the circumstances are obviously very different, Germany has been reunited. There is no reason today to keep Korea divided in half.
NK News: What is your opinion of the UN COI’s recommendation that the UN refer North Korea – and possibly Kim Jong Un – to the ICC?
Bolton: I don’t, myself, approve of the ICC. I don’t like the discretion of the ICC prosecutor. I don’t believe you create governmental institutions in the abstract. This is not a matter of international law. This is a matter of fundamental morality – that North Korea is a prison camp and the answer is not to prosecute Kim Jong Un. The answer is to open the prison camp.
NK News: What do you make of the Obama administration’s current policy towards North Korea — and the fact in his time in office four Americans have been arrested in DPRK (and only one released)?
Bolton: I think Obama basically pays no attention to North Korea. That is consistent with his general lack of interest in American national security policy. He is the first president since Franklin Roosevelt not to put national security at the top of his priority list, but I think his focus is almost entirely domestic. Now, at least he’s not making the mistake of the Bush administration in its second term, trying to negotiate a deal with North Korea on the nuclear weapons program. But, the downside is that he is not paying attention to (North Korea) at all. So, the continuing threat of North Korea improving its ballistic missile capability, continuing to advance its nuclear program, simply means that the threat is growing more acute. It’s not disappearing just because (he) doesn’t talk about it.
‘…it is a mistake to give North Korea legitimacy by trading them something to get the hostages back’
North Korea has to be treated as a terrorist state. That’s basically what it is. It is a tragedy that it’s holding Americans. It is (also) a tragedy that it’s holding Japanese, many of whom over the years it has kidnapped. You can understand the human reactions of all of these people’s family and friends. Ultimately, though, you don’t want to do anything that legitimizes this regime in Pyongyang. So, I don’t have any trouble talking to them – trying to explain that as a matter of humanitarian concern that, frankly, (it is in North Korea’s) own best interest to let these people go.
(Still), I would not trade for them. Just as we made a mistake in trading five Taliban from Guantanamo Bay to get (Bowe) Bergdahl back, it is a mistake to give North Korea legitimacy by trading them something to get the hostages back.
NK News: What do you recommend doing with the Korean People’s Army/Workers’ Party of Korea post-unification?
Bolton: Any institutions in North Korea that are not prepared to accept a representative government like the (Korean) Workers’ Party simply have to be disbanded. (Anyway), I think they would collapse of their own weight.
NK News: There’s talk that you were thinking about running for presidential office in 2016. If you became president, what would be the first thing you would do regarding North Korea?
Bolton: I haven’t decided anything with respect to 2016, so I’ll just put it this way: I think whoever is selected president should start a dialogue with China at the highest level and with some urgency about the reunification issue.
Picture of John Bolton: Gage Skidmore, Flickr Creative Commons