John Bolton, a long-standing embodiment of the American hawk, and arguably the most principled member of Donald Trump’s administration, left the White House this month.
As is customary for President Trump, his former close advisor was dropped suddenly and unceremoniously, though it’s difficult to say that the dismissal came as a complete surprise.
Rumors about mounting problems John Bolton had with President Trump and, to a larger extent, with Trump’s inner circle, had been circulating since at least early this year, and in July many Washington insiders were certain: John Bolton’s dismissal was merely a question of time.
Bolton’s removal might well seriously impact U.S. policy in many parts of the world. But neither yours truly, nor the majority of our readers, one would suspect, are particularly interested in developments in the Middle East.
Our main concern is, and should be, his departure’s influence on Northeast Asia in general and the Korean peninsula in particular.
John Bolton was an unusual member of Donald Trump’s administration. It was clear he joined the administration not because of some personal career plans but because he wanted to serve what he, rightly or wrongly, perceived as his country’s national interests.
Many people suspect that Secretary Pompeo is quietly building a foundation for his future bid for the presidency, and believe that his ambition might influence his behavior. Nobody would expect anything like that from John Bolton.
Bolton was also one of the most experienced members of the administration. After all, he has been dealing with issues of foreign policy at a very high level for nearly four decades – as Undersecretary of State, as Ambassador to the UN, and in many other capacities.
At the same time, however, John Bolton was a perfect specimen of the Washington hawk. He was a quintessential hardliner, always suspicious of diplomacy and alliances, and always ready to rely on either the use of force or, at least, the credible threat of the use of force.
In dealing with North Korea, Bolton had essentially been a political brake. His presence seriously limited the freedom of the far more adventurous and opportunistic Donald Trump to maneuver.
In dealing with North Korea, Bolton had essentially been a political brake
It’s not clear whether John Bolton sincerely believed in the fantasy of North Korea’s denuclearization – an improbable dream which has been dead since at least 2006, if not earlier.
However, irrespective of how high Bolton thought the chances of denuclearization were, he acted as if denuclearization was the only outcome of negotiations with North Korea that should be seen as acceptable by the United States.
In other words, John Bolton’s battle cry was “all or nothing.” Since “all” in this context means denuclearization, which was clearly unachievable, there was little doubt that persistent adherence to this policy would leave Americans with “nothing.” But that hardly bothered him.
The U.S. President had a long talk with his North Korean counterpart without the ever-annoying presence of the hardliner-in-chief.
The North Koreans seem to believe that Donald Trump could have been persuaded into giving significant concessions to them, had Bolton not been around all the time.
They’ve always been very critical of the former National Security Advisor and have produced a number of articles about the negative impact he has allegedly had on the normalization of U.S.-DPRK relations.
Pyongyang also welcomed Bolton’s departure: a North Korean spokesperson called him a “burdensome troublemaker” with an “anachronistic way of thinking.”
It’s even possible that Bolton was actively sabotaging the resumption of working-level talks with North Korea, which have been expected to start in the near future for the last few months.
However, on September 10, this all became history: John Bolton is gone, replaced by someone who has neither his political clout nor firm convictions. What should we expect in this new situation?
John Bolton’s battle cry was “all or nothing”
First of all, it’s clear that Donald Trump would like to make some kind of deal with the North Koreans.
It’s open to speculation, however, whether he wants this deal because he has partially recognized (at last) that the Holy Grail of “complete and fully verifiable denuclearization” is not achievable, and so some compromise aimed at nuclear arms control is the order of the day.
Alternatively, one could suggest that the main reason for the President’s eagerness to make a deal might be much more selfish: the 2020 presidential elections are approaching and it would be quite nice to show voters some results.
Results would surely help to present Donald Trump as the great peacemaker who finally solved the North Korea nuclear problem.
Of course, the deal we are talking about will be presented to the public with much fanfare as a ‘major breakthrough on the road to North Korean denuclearization.’
Actually, however, it will have little, if anything, to do with denuclearization in the strictest sense of the word.
The North Koreans are not going to talk about surrendering their nuclear arsenal, no matter what, even though they are probably willing to freeze or partially dismantle some of their nuclear facilities.
This future deal will probably be an improved version of what was proposed by the North Koreans in Hanoi, even though it will be less biased in Pyongyang’s favor.
In other words, the North Koreans will freeze and/or dismantle some of their nuclear facilities, and the existing sanctions regime will be relaxed in exchange.
There are many technical details which make a big difference, but for the time being, it will enough to discuss the basic outline of a possible compromise.
There are already signs that things are beginning to move fast with the departure of John Bolton. Both sides have expressed guarded optimism about the prospects of the working-level talks – something we have not seen for a few months.
It might be quite important that, shortly after Bolton’s departure, Trump said that a “new method” would be possible in negotiations with North Korea.
This remark, in spite of being deliberately enigmatic and nebulous, has been largely interpreted as a sign that the U.S. is finally abandoning the “all or nothing” Boltonian approach and is willing instead to talk about the piecemeal agreement the North Koreans have always insisted on.
This way of negotiating, where small steps from one side are supposed to be reciprocated by roughly equivalent small steps by the other side, is the only approach which would be acceptable for the North Koreans, no matter what.
With the dismissal of John Bolton, the vehicle of U.S. diplomacy will have one less powerful brake
It seems increasingly likely that, at some point early next year, working-level talks will finally produce a compromise in the form of an extension of the Hanoi-type – a “small deal,” as they often call it these days. Whether this “small deal” will last for long is an open question.
If Donald Trump is reelected, he might try to renegotiate any deal that is made, or at least make sure that the deal will last as long as he remains in the White House.
After all, such a compromise will explicitly or implicitly imply that the North Koreans will refrain from nuclear tests and long-range missile launches for the time being. Such self-constraint will allow Donald Trump to present the situation to the lay public in the United States as a sign of North Korea’s nuclear question being solved or nearly solved.
Of course, such statements will have nothing to do with the actual situation, since North Korea will definitely keep its entire nuclear arsenal, fissile material, as well as a significant part of its research and manufacturing facilities.
However, the general public and voters will probably swallow Trump’s narrative, even if the expert community will easily see through it.
One has to be careful when talking about whether such a “small deal” will be good or bad. On one hand, the deal will not advance denuclearization, and the agreement, to a significant degree, will be concocted to serve Mr. Trump’s personal interests.
However, on the other hand, the realistic alternatives to such an imperfect agreement are even worse. So, one should probably tentatively and cautiously welcome such steps.
At any rate now, with the dismissal of John Bolton, the vehicle of U.S. diplomacy will have one less powerful brake. This means that it will be able to move both more freely — and more recklessly.
We’ll see in due time whether this is a good or bad thing.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: White House
John Bolton, a long-standing embodiment of the American hawk, and arguably the most principled member of Donald Trump’s administration, left the White House this month.As is customary for President Trump, his former close advisor was dropped suddenly and unceremoniously, though it’s difficult to say that the dismissal came as a complete surprise.Rumors about mounting problems John
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.