Regardless of how much North Korea may capitulate to U.S. demands in negotiations, the threat of war will remain – the calling card of Bolton’s version of “diplomacy.”
This article is the final installment of a series exploring the past of soon-to-be National Security Adviser John Bolton and what his appointment will mean for U.S. foreign policy, with a focus on the Middle East, Latin America, and the Koreas.
Part I examined Bolton’s past advocacy for Israel, often at the U.S.’ expense. Part II detailed how that same commitment to Israel has shaped his vision for the Middle East, a vision that calls for regime change in Iran, the division of both Syria and Iraq, and the creation of a new Sunni state. Part III explored Bolton’s past and present policies in regard to Latin America, policies that threaten to return the region to a bloody legacy of American-backed military coups.
Part IV examines the effect Bolton’s appointment is likely to have on the upcoming peace talks in Korea.
WASHINGTON – While the administration of President Donald Trump has made a point of threatening other countries and their leaders, few countries have been menaced like North Korea. Last August, Trump threatened to attack North Korea with “fire and fury unlike the world has ever seen,” apparently suggesting that any U.S. attack would dwarf the devastation wrought by the U.S. atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of the Second World War. A month later, during his debut speech to the United Nations, Trump threatened to “totally destroy” the country if it failed to end its nuclear weapons program.
Since then, the threats have continued in some form or another, with the Pentagon telling Congress that a full-scale invasion of the isolated country was the only way to destroy its nuclear weapons and with the White House seeking to begin a “limited” war on the Korean peninsula by launching a “bloody nose” attack – plans that experts have long maintained are as dangerous as they are deluded.
Despite all the fear-mongering and threats of “extinction” and annihilation, North Korea and South Korea have agreed to high-level talks that, unsurprisingly, will also involve the U.S., in order to resolve the solution peacefully.
Though U.S. media sought to give Trump’s “nuclear diplomacy” the credit, efforts made by the administration of South Korea’s pacifistic, progressive president, Moon Jae-in, have brought about the first talks between the two countries in more than a decade. As journalist Tim Shorrock, correspondent for The Nation and the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism, told MintPress News:
The whole reason peace talks are happening is that Moon Jae-in did not want a war on the Korean peninsula and made it very clear that the South Koreans would resist any attempts by the U.S. to unilaterally strike without working with South Korea.”
Now with John Bolton – the notorious ultra-hawk who has long been pushing for war on the Korean peninsula and elsewhere – set to take over the post of National Security Adviser from H.R. McMaster next week, concerns have been raised that his appointment could endanger the success of the peace talks, given that he is set to “work closely” with the South Korean delegation. Indeed, as Bolton’s history shows, his solution for most international problems is war.
However, Shorrock — having acknowledged Bolton’s troubling history — pointed out that Trump doesn’t always listen to his advisers. He noted that Bolton’s predecessor, H.R. McMaster had been “pushing for a ‘bloody nose’ attack on North Korea and Trump didn’t go for that […] even though he [McMaster] had pushed for that for months.” Shorrock added:
Trump has a way of manipulating his people and doesn’t always take their advice. You don’t always know what’s going to happen. Trump’s relationship with Bolton is as unpredictable as it is with any of his people and he [Trump] seems really committed to having these peace talks. […] Trump wants to get a deal out of this that will make him look good.”
Yet, Bolton’s past and present rhetoric, as well as powerful influence in the Trump administration, nonetheless presents a danger to the peace talks and their outcome.
The Bolton way: don’t trust, don’t verify, just attack
Bolton’s hard-line stance is partially, and perhaps ironically, to blame for the current crisis regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, considering his role in ending the 1994 agreement between the U.S. and North Korea. As Shorrock pointed out, Bolton’s “whole purpose [in the Bush administration] was to destroy the agreement that Clinton signed with North Korea, and he got away with it.”
Indeed, while serving as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security under George W. Bush, Bolton helped convince the President to end the 1994 Agreed Framework between the U.S. and North Korea that sought to freeze and replace the latter’s nuclear power program. He did so by misrepresenting the terms of the agreement in order to suggest that North Korea was no longer in compliance, and by distorting intelligence so it could be used as his “hammer . . . to shatter the Agreed Framework.”
That decision led North Korea to develop nuclear weapons using the plutonium in its possession and to test its first nuclear weapon in 2006, helping to create the current situation on the peninsula.
As Foreign Policy notes, many analysts view the scrapping of the Agreed Framework as a “cautionary tale” warning of the dangers of rejecting diplomacy and how that decision can backfire. Yet, to Bolton, it illustrated how diplomacy doesn’t work with “rogue states” and that the only viable solution is regime change.
Following the dissolution of the Agreed Framework, Bolton continued to inflame tensions with North Korea while serving in the Bush administration. In 2003, he delivered a speech, titled “A Dictatorship at the Crossroads,” in which he asserted that the U.S. demanded the end to North Korea’s nuclear power program and would offer no concessions in return. He also personally insulted the then-leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, at a time when the U.S. was trying to negotiate a new agreement with North Korea – an effort that ultimately failed. Bolton’s speech led North Korean state media to refer to him as “human scum and a bloodsucker.”
Bolton’s strong distrust of North Korea’s leadership continues to today. However, since Trump became president, he has become more vocal about the need “to end the regime in North Korea.” Last September, Bolton argued on FOX News:
Anybody who [pushes for] more diplomacy with North Korea, more sanctions, whether against North Korea or an effort to apply sanctions against China, is just giving North Korea more time to increase its nuclear arsenal. We have fooled around with North Korea for 25 years, and fooling around some more is just going to make matters worse.”
Bolton further argued that “regime change” was the only “diplomatic” solution left.
Watch | John Bolton says peace talks give North Korea more time to expand its nuclear arsenal
Then, this past February – when moves were already being made to install Bolton in McMaster’s place – Bolton penned an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he made “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.” The article is full of Boltonesque hype, warning that the “threat is imminent” and a preventative war must be launched before time runs out. The piece also suggests that the thawing relations between North and South Korea are a deliberate ploy by the North “to divert attention from its nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs.”
This narrative, long advocated by Bolton, that any attempt made by North Korea to denuclearize or engage in diplomacy is a ploy, has been widely disseminated since peace talks on the Korean peninsula were announced earlier this year. Indeed, Trump himself noted that North Korea’s offer to negotiate could represent a “false hope” the day after South Korea broke the news of the diplomatic breakthrough. His administration then slapped more sanctions on the North and announced that upcoming war games – which began just recently and which North Korea has gone out of its way to ignore – would continue as planned despite Pyongyang’s conciliatory tone.
This “false hope” narrative was also widely circulated in the U.S. press. For instance, in an article Bolton himself could well have written, Brian Bennett of the Los Angeles Times stated that diplomacy with North Korea was being used as “a smokescreen while he [North Korean leader Kim Jong-un] gets closer to building a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the continental United States. U.S. officials say that goal could be just months away.” CNN warned that Trump – by just engaging in the talks – would fall into a “familiar North Korean trap.”
In other words, regardless of how much North Korea may capitulate to U.S. demands in negotiations, the threat of war will remain – the calling card of Bolton’s version of “diplomacy.”
With Bolton’s troubling history and current policy goals with regard to North Korea well-known, concern has understandably been raised as to whether his tenure as National Security Adviser – set to officially begin next Monday – will include personal efforts to sabotage the upcoming summit on the Korean peninsula.
Bolton has publicly stated his view that there is little to no value in even engaging in peace talks — calling such meetings “unproductive” before they have even begun, and asserting that the only outcome will be foreshortening “the amount of time that we’re going to waste in negotiations that will never produce the result we want, which is Kim giving up his nuclear program.”
Shorrock expressed skepticism as to whether such an effort by Bolton – if launched – could succeed: “I don’t think Bolton could single-handedly drive [the peace talks] off track.” He added that Bolton’s only goal in holding the talks is “to deliver a single message: ‘denuclearize, or else.’”
Shorrock also noted that Bolton will find himself restrained by multiple players, from the delegations of both North and South Korea as well as from the U.S. military establishment seeking to protect its strategically important military alliance with South Korea.
One limiting factor on Bolton’s influence is the experience of the North Korean delegation. Shorrock noted:
The North Korea foreign ministry and the diplomats who will be talking with the U.S. and their intelligence people have far more experience with the U.S. and know far more about the U.S. than Bolton will ever know about the Koreas.”
That experience, Shorrock stated, is an advantage. He added that the North Korean government has “dealt with the U.S. for decades and they are pretty tough negotiators and they have their own record. […] They know who Bolton is and they know his record. They will be prepared to deal with him.” He also highlighted the fact that North Korea would be unlikely to cave in the negotiations and would refuse to agree to demands from the U.S. — such as those put forth by Bolton in the past – of immediate denuclearization without any concessions offered in return.
A much more formidable restraint, however, on Bolton’s influence in the upcoming talks will be South Korea, as its current President, Moon Jae-in, has remained steadfastly committed to resolving the conflict on the peninsula peacefully. Indeed, as Shorrock pointed out, “Moon Jae-in has taken the momentum away from the U.S. and there is a lot of tension between them [the U.S. and South Korea] as a result.” This tension has been further amplified as Moon has pushed back on U.S. efforts to challenge his country’s sovereignty.
The South Korean government has also directly responded to concerns about Bolton and has dismissed suggestions that he will be able to influence South Korea’s commitment to peace — suggesting that the South Koreans are confident they will resist any attempts at sabotage by him or any other individual in the U.S. delegation. As Yonhap recently reported, a senior Cheong Wa Dae (Blue House) official stated that not only is Bolton’s past record on the North not important but neither are his intentions. What matters, according to the official, is “how the entire U.S. government and President Trump will try to resolve this issue.”
Nonetheless, attempts are being made by the Trump administration to try to “strong-arm” the South Koreans, likely in response to the fact that the current government of South Korea has insisted that its sovereignty be respected and has made it clear that it will resist U.S. unilateral actions that could threaten a peaceful resolution to the crisis. For instance, last Thursday, Trump stated that he would postpone finalizing a trade agreement with South Korea until he had secured the denuclearization of North Korea, adding that the trade agreement “is a very strong card” that he plans to use as leverage against the South.
Yet Trump’s attempts to “strong-arm” the South Korean delegation could be met with resistance not only from the South but from powerful forces in the U.S. government, namely the Pentagon. Shorrock asserted that if Trump “starts making moves that antagonize U.S.-South Korean ties, he could really endanger [U.S.] ties with the South Korean military, which a lot of people at the Pentagon don’t want to see happen. [That alliance] is really important to the Pentagon.”
In addition, the Pentagon has long been wary of a war breaking out on the Korean peninsula, giving the U.S. military additional reason to hope for a successful resolution of the conflict through diplomacy instead of Bolton’s preferred modus operandi of military action. As Shorrock pointed out, “a war of aggression, a war by choice [on the Korean peninsula] is not something the Pentagon wants to get involved in.”
Indeed, the Pentagon has stated that a full-scale ground invasion would be the only military solution that would successfully destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, a tremendous undertaking that would mean a major loss of life for Koreans and Americans. U.S. generals have also asserted that the U.S. would “struggle” to win any war against North Korea, further illustrating the Pentagon’s wariness of a military solution.
The Art of (Sabotaging) the Deal
Despite the restraints likely to frustrate any attempts Bolton could make to sabotage the upcoming peace summit, there are several ways in which he could derail the peace talks – all of which would have major consequences.
For instance, Bolton’s insistence on demanding the immediate denuclearization of North Korea without concessions – the complete opposite of South Korea’s proposed peace process of gradual denuclearization – could threaten the peace process. Shorrock stated that Bolton could endanger the talks “by counseling Trump to not give concessions or guarantees during the negotiations,” particularly if the North Koreans don’t respond immediately to U.S. demands.
If Trump goes that route – which remains to be seen – Bolton could work to convince the president that the negotiations, and thus a diplomatic solution, have failed, leaving open Bolton’s panacea for most international conflicts – a military solution.
Another way Bolton could threaten the peace talks is his push to end the Iran nuclear deal despite Iran’s compliance with the agreement. That move, which is likely to occur this May, would place any potential agreement the U.S. seeks to broker with the Koreas in peril. As Shorrock noted:
If they [the Trump administration] do terminate the Iran agreement, that could convince North Korea that it’s dangerous to talk to the U.S. Terminating that agreement could have a real impact on what happens in North Korea.”
Bolton’s trigger finger, Moon’s charisma, and Trump’s ego
While Bolton has a history of distorting and blocking intelligence that doesn’t fit in his agenda — which in the case of North Korea is regime change — efforts to derail the upcoming talks by accusing North Korea of seeking to continue its nuclear weapons program during negotiations, as Bolton has done, may originate or be based on intelligence from outside the United States.
On Monday, Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono, stated: “Earth is being currently extracted from a tunnel where the previous nuclear test was carried out. North Korea is thoroughly preparing for the next nuclear test.” Kono’s assessment was based on satellite imagery he received from the United States. He later warned that world leaders should cautiously reassess the sincerity of “Pyongyang’s recent charm” to denuclearize.
Kono’s statements were quickly discredited by 38 North, a website devoted to analyzing North Korean military and nuclear sites. It noted that satellite imagery from March 23 instead showed that activity at the test site cited by Kono “has been significantly reduced compared to previous months.” Such statements by U.S. allies — based on flawed U.S. intelligence supplied by figures in the Trump administration like Bolton — could pose an additional obstacle to the upcoming summit.
Thus, even if Bolton is not the person publicly making the claim, his influence on the public narrative regarding North Korea – particularly in the form of suggestions that North Korea is “stalling” for time to create more weapons and agreeing to diplomacy to deceive other nations – has already endangered the peace talks, before they have even begun. However, as to whether Bolton can threaten their outcome once they begin is anyone’s guess. It all comes down to South Korea’s charismatic president, who has consistently pushed for peace, and the outsized ego of a U.S. president who seeks to fashion himself a “deal maker.”