How John Bolton’s appointment could shape U.S. North Korea policy
The hardline former Ambassador to the UN stands to have a major impact on DPRK-U.S. relations
News that former UN Ambassador John Bolton will replace H.R. McMaster as White House National Security Advisor (NSA) may not be as surprising as the decision to drop Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for CIA Director Mike Pompeo last week, but the potential impact could be much greater when it comes to Washington’s North Korea policy.
Until Friday, the most hard-line Trump administration official seemed to be H.R. McMaster, who had warned that Pyongyang’s ultimate goal may be to use nuclear weapons to unify the Korean peninsula and said a nuclear North Korea “cannot be deterred”.
But this position is easily overshadowed by Bolton’s track record on the issue, which since the early 2000s has evolved into increasingly urgent calls to coerce Pyongyang into full denuclearization – with military force if required.
Ahead of a tentatively scheduled but not yet guaranteed meeting between President Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, figures like Democrat Senator Ed Markey have already reacted to the shuffle by warning that a “war cabinet” is being formed, and claimed the White House is “gearing up for military conflict.”
What, then, are John Bolton’s full views on North Korea? How might they impact a deal being reached at the forthcoming summit? And among other administrative changes, what does his arrival mean for the future of the peninsula?
Bolton’s hard-line position was initially better known among Middle East watchers, mainly due to his continued and strident defense of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But he’s also been consistent in his hardline views on North Korea, which have evolved over time into sharper versions of what was first heard during the days of the George W. Bush administration.
In 2003 Bolton famously condemned late leader Kim Jong Il for living like royalty while citizens lived a “hellish nightmare,” a view which incensed Pyongyang to in response label him “human scum” – causing turbulence in the emerging Six-Party Talks process.
Though those talks failed, Bolton consistently called for North Korea to open up to full foreign inspection to arrive at “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement,” citing Libya’s own approach to denuclearization from 2004 onwards.
During the Obama-administration era – and likely influenced by North Korea’s walk-out of the Six-Party Talks in 2009 – Bolton was quick to criticize the ‘Leap Day Deal’ of 2012, describing it as “deja vu all over again.” When the deal fell apart a few weeks after being agreed, he told the Washington Post that the only long-term solution to this problem is “to reunify the peninsula.”
Since then Bolton has advocated a regime-change oriented variation of the Trump administration’s goal of pushing Beijing to “do more” to pressure North Korea. In a 2014 interview with NK News, for example, he recommended the U.S. pursue a “peaceful” approach that would convince China to force Kim Jong Un out so that South Korea can lead a unified peninsula.
“China, through its massive economic power over North Korea, could itself quickly remove any Pyongyang regime,” Bolton further explained in 2017. “If we wish to avoid resorting to the military option, we must move immediately today (to convincing Beijing)”.
But as the sophistication of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program evolved, especially in late 2017, Bolton’s position appeared to sharpen. The day after North Korea’s November 2017 Hwasong-15 ICBM launch, Bolton said: “Look, if the State Department is still focused on sanctions, then I will guarantee you, I’ll bet the ranch right now North Korea will have deliverable nuclear weapons.”
The same month Bolton added that even though casualties in South Korea would be a consequence of any U.S. led attack to stop North Korea’s nuclear program, “at the end of the day, the President’s job is to protect American citizens, and South Korea is going to have to face up to that.”
On North Korea’s Olympic overture this year, Bolton said in January 2018 that “the only reason this is happening, I fear, is that North Korea thinks it is so close to finally achieving its long-sought objective of getting deliverable nuclear weapons it will buy six or eight weeks after the Olympics.”
And in February he went further, penning an op-ed on the legal case for striking North Korea first: “Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea, we should not wait until the very last minute. That would risk striking after the North has deliverable nuclear weapons, a much more dangerous situation”
Deal-making with North Korea
Bolton has long made himself known as someone who doesn’t “do carrots” when it comes to negotiations with adversaries. This appears to be what now drives his recent public endorsement of the Trump-Kim summit – due to the value it offers in expediting full diplomatic failure from the North Korean side.
Combined with his position on other global nuclear non-proliferation negotiations, his new role in the White House may, therefore, create obstacles for the realization of any possible summit deal with the North.
Though it’s unclear what type of deal, if any, Trump will attempt to forge with Kim Jong Un when they eventually meet, some observers at NK News have described why it might make sense for the U.S. to try and pursue something similar to the Iran nuclear deal: where sanctions relief comes only after full compliance on the North Korean side.
This approach, in particular, has been advocated because prior deals based on the logic of “commitment for commitment, action for action” have not been successful at denuclearizing the DPRK.
But even a comprehensive Iran-style deal would represent an unprecedented new approach to North Korea from Washington’s perspective, and Bolton’s position on that deal may pose obstacles to the realization of something similar with the North: “I think (the Iran Deal) is a strategic debacle for the United States,” Bolton said on “America’s Newsroom” in March.
“You can always tinker around the edges, and the question is whether putting lipstick on a pig is really going to make a difference here.”
Advocating for Trump to decertify the deal throughout much of last year, Bolton has dismissed critics and said that walking away from it would make no difference on Tehran’s strategic thinking, because “burying Iran in paper (agreements) will not stop its nuclear program.”
The only thing, he explained, that can deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons “is the threat of preemptive U.S. or Israeli military strikes, not pieces of paper.”
Bolton’s position on the Iran deal, largely supported by the President, suggests he is likely to only advocate deals with North Korea that come with impossibly high standards. This, therefore, may explain the logic for what he advocated Trump should say to Kim Jong Un during the forthcoming summit:
“’I’m glad to be here to talk about denuclearization,’” he suggested Trump say to Kim. “‘So, tell me what ports American boats should sail into? What airports can American cargo planes land at so we can load your nuclear weapons program onto those as soon as the beginning of next week?’”
Even if only a TV interview exaggeration of his real views, the picture suggests Bolton will only recommend Trump consider agreeing to something which can conceivably lead to an urgent removal of all DPRK nuclear weapons, with minimum room for cheating on the DPRK side.
Such a goal, given precedence with Pyongyang, would, however, be extremely difficult – if not impossible – to realize.
John Bolton’s position as NSA means he will be coordinating national security and foreign policies among key government agencies in Washington. As a result, there’s a strong possibility his strident views will color how he synthesizes the often conflicting inputs from U.S. diplomatic, military and intelligence services ahead of the critical summit meeting with Kim Jong Un.
Consequently, though South Korea’s Blue House Press spokesperson on Friday said that “what’s important for U.S.-DPRK talks is President Trump’s decision” and “how Bolton was in the past is not (now) important,” the reality will likely be quite different.
Hopes for a long-standing peaceful settlement at the forthcoming inter-Korean and DPRK-U.S. summits could be seriously impacted by Bolton’s appointment, especially in light of the recent departure of Rex Tillerson and career diplomat Joe Yun.
However, it’s also possible that Trump’s appointment of Bolton – alongside Pompeo at State – could ahead of the summit be another articulation of the oft-repeated policy of “maximum pressure and engagement.”
In other words, an attempt to increase the stakes for Kim Jong Un as high as possible, with the hope of ensuring the biggest possible concessions from the North Korean side when summit talks emerge. In this light, Bolton would, in the short-term, be a tool to ensure Trump’s strategy of “maximum pressure and engagement” is articulated at every level, including personnel.
Overall, without unprecedented concessions quickly emerging from Kim Jong Un at the summit – should it go ahead – the prospects of increased discussion surrounding military options could quickly re-emerge on the peninsula.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Gage Skidmore
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