[News analysis] The political agenda behind Bolton’s memoir

Posted on : 2020-06-23 16:16 KST Modified on : 2020-06-23 16:25 KST
A super hawk even by conservative standards, the former national security advisor wanted inter-Korean dialogue to fail
US President Donald Trump and former National Security Advisor John Bolton at the White House on Aug. 20, 2019. (Yonhap News)
US President Donald Trump and former National Security Advisor John Bolton at the White House on Aug. 20, 2019. (Yonhap News)

The memoir of former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton (“The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir”) and its behind-the-scenes account of the North Korea-US summits have thrown the White House and the Blue House into turmoil. Bolton’s venomous memoir further undermines the already damaged inter-Korean and North Korea-US relations. But when reading Bolton — regarded as a “super hawk” even among American foreign policy hardliners — we should take care to sift facts from impressions.

Legal and ethical questions aside, Bolton compiled his voluminous 570-page memoir from the meticulous notes he kept during his 17 months at the White House. While serving as Trump’s national security advisor from April 2018 to September 2019, Bolton was a key figure guiding the US’ overseas strategy. Since Bolton was serving at a dynamic time on the Korean Peninsula, when North Korea was holding summits with South Korea and the US, his memoir has its uses in supplying some missing puzzle pieces.

But some thought should also be given to what kind of figure Bolton is and what he might have left out of his book. Bolton is an ultra hardliner who has long been convinced of the need to topple regimes in countries such as North Korea and Iraq.

In regard to the North Korean nuclear issue, Bolton was one of the main figures who torpedoed the 1994 North Korea-US Agreed Framework, in which the US had agreed to provide North Korea with light water reactors in exchange for the North dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear complex. Bolton served as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security during the presidency of George W. Bush. While visiting Seoul in August 2002, Bolton precipitated the second North Korean nuclear crisis by declaring that North Korea’s efforts to develop highly enriched uranium (HEU) since 1997 had reached a worrying level.

Bolton’s views on North Korea can be summed up as follows: all previous US administrations have failed in their attempts to negotiate with North Korea, and the only solution is tough sanctions. He believes that dialogue and negotiations are foolish, regarding them as playing into North Korea’s hands. But pressuring North Korea unilaterally while disregarding dialogue, as Bolton advocates, would prevent peace on the Korean Peninsula from ever even beginning.

Such attitudes are on full display in Bolton’s memoir. Bolton writes that “Chung Eui-yong, Director of [the Blue House] National Security Office [. . .] later all but admitted that it was he who had suggested to [North Korean leader Kim Jong-un] that he make the invitation in the first place” for Trump to attend the first North Korea-US summit in Singapore in June 2018.

“This whole diplomatic fandango was South Korea’s creation, relating more to its ‘unification’ agenda than serious strategy on Kim’s part or ours,” Bolton writes. In short, Bolton believes, the North Korea-US talks originated from a South Korean initiative that was unrelated to American interests. Bolton doesn’t give any credit to the efforts by South Korea, North Korea, and the US to quickly set the mood for peace after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics earlier that year.

In the memoir, Bolton doesn’t bother hiding the fact that he wasn’t just skeptical about the North Korea-US talks — he didn’t want them to succeed at all. While describing the bickering over the site of the first North Korea-US summit — with North Korea pushing for Pyongyang or Panmunjom and the US preferring Geneva or Singapore — Bolton added a side note about his personal hopes: “maybe the whole thing would collapse!”

During a press interview in May, leading up to the Singapore summit, Bolton held up the “Libya model” of denuclearization preceding rewards as a solution for the North Korean nuclear issue, provoking anger from the North. Bolton also managed to ensure that Trump and Kim wouldn’t reach a deal in their second summit — held in Hanoi in February 2019 — by constantly telling Trump, from the preparatory phase to the scene of the summit itself, that North Korea ought to dismantle not only its nuclear weapons but also its chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles.

Dismissing Moon as nothing more than an attention seeker

Bolton also writes off Moon’s attempts to mediate between North Korea and the US as little more than an attempt to share the spotlight with Trump and Kim. While recounting how Moon had proposed holding the Trump-Kim summit at Panmunjom followed by a trilateral summit that he would then join, Bolton describes this as “largely a Moon effort to insert himself into the ensuing photo op.” At the time, the Blue House had reportedly planned for the three sides to make an end-of-war declaration.

Bolton also writes that, prior to the trilateral meeting at Panmunjom in June 2019, North Korea and the US had both opposed Moon’s participation, but Moon had insisted on attending. In short, Bolton regards the South Korean government’s attempts to arrange peace as being politically motivated.

“[The memoir] appears to contain a huge number of one-sided claims by Bolton, who’s regarded as an ultra hardliner even by the far right. Taking those claims literally could lead to some quite unnecessary misunderstandings,” said Cho Sung-ryul, a research consultant for the Institute for National Security Strategy, during the MBC radio program “Kim Jun-bae’s News in Focus” on June 22.

Furthermore, Bolton’s memoir is brimming over with antipathy for Trump, who fired him after a fractious period. Bolton levels harsh criticism at Trump, who he said wasn’t fit to be president and “couldn’t tell the difference between his personal interests and the country’s interests.” We can’t rule out the possibility that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was right when he said that Bolton’s book tells “half-truths and outright falsehoods.”

By Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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