TOKYO–Blame it on John Bolton. That’s President Donald Trump’s explanation for why talks to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program haven't been going anywhere.
It was indeed Bolton’s idea that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un follow the model of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who gave up his nuclear program entirely in 2003. But the great flaw in that example, as the North Koreans often note, is that NATO-backed rebels deposed and killed Gaddafi eight years later.
Now Trump is saying that Bolton, by raising the Libyan example, “set us back very badly” in negotiations with North Korea. “What a disaster,” Trump said Wednesday. “I don’t blame Kim Jong Un for what he said after that. He wanted nothing to do with John Bolton.”
No doubt Bolton’s hard-line advice on Kim was deeply offensive to the man whom Trump has come to respect, even to “love.” And it would seem that in a contest between Kim and Bolton, Kim was the winner.
So Bolton’s advice on North Korea was one more big reason for Trump to dump him as national security adviser, especially after the North called for long awaited working level talks with the U.S. later this month—on its own terms. But it’s unlikely Kim will quit taunting the United States, and even less likely that talks will persuade him to give up his nukes and his missiles, which he showed two years ago have the technical ability to hit American cities.
North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui had barely announced the regime’s vision of U.S.-North Korean negotiations before two short-range projectiles—which Trump says he doesn’t see as a problem—soared aloft. In fact they were like exclamation points emphasizing Kim’s hard line. According to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, Kim even gave “field guidance” to the test firing of a “super-large multiple rocket launcher.”
Choe’s statement about the “willingness to sit with the U.S. side for comprehensive discussions” might have seemed like a breakthrough after the North’s failure to return to talks, a promise made during Trump’s photo op with Kim on the North-South line at Panmunjom at the end of June. But even sans Bolton, there’s still a problem of personalities.
Kim’s not a fan of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo either. North Korea accused both Bolton and Pompeo of persuading Trump to walk out of his February summit with Kim in Hanoi. They had advised the president the North needed to do much more than offer a vague promise to shut down its aging nuclear complex at Yongbyon while maintaining its nuclear program at other sites.
For the moment, Pompeo may appear secure at State, and there’s talk he might take over Bolton’s dossier as well, but Pyongyang thinks Pompeo should go, too, and has said so in no uncertain terms. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho has already dubbed him the “poisonous plant of American diplomacy.”
Vice Foreign Minister Choe’s statement on new negotiations, as distributed by KCNA in English, made it clear the North, a.k.a. the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is not budging on the nuclear program that the U.S. insists it has to abandon. As long as the U.S. sticks to the same old “worn-out scenario,” ran the official English version, “the DPRK-U.S. dealings may come to an end.”
Like a stern teacher addressing a recalcitrant student, Choe said she believed the U.S. had better come up with something more to North Korea’s liking—all geared to “the calculation method acceptable to us.”
In Pyongyang’s view, the U.S. has to agree to a “step-by-step” approach under which North Korea refrains from testing its nukes and long-range intercontinental missiles while the U.S. removes sanctions.There is no hint that other “calculations,” including on-site inspections, would be negotiable.
“North Korea is not taking positive steps and not making positive noises,” says Leif-Eric Easley, international studies professor at Seoul’s Ewha University.
The biggest problem with the step-by-step approach is that North Korea has been building ever more nuclear warheads since its last, and biggest, nuclear test two years ago this month. The North conducted its last long-range missile test two months later but is known to be working on missiles with which to fire warheads at distant targets, including the U.S.
A United Nations panel, in a report for the U.N. Security Council on Aug. 30, warned of the North’s success developing short-range ballistic missiles powered by solid fuel that could be fired with virtually no warning. The report, citing “clear progression” to “solid propellant,” said the North’s goal is to power intercontinental ballistic missiles with solid rather than liquid fuel, which takes hours to pump into the ICBMs and makes them vulnerable to discovery in time for countermeasures.
Importantly, while President Trump insists the short-range launches do not breach his understanding with Kim, the U.N. panel of experts concludes that they are a “new class of short-range ballistic missile” which “increase the effectiveness of the entire ballistic missile program” including, in addition to the solid fuel development, “mobility through the use of different types of transporter erector launcher and the capacity to penetrate ballistic missile defence systems.”
Yet for all this, Trump continues to appear unperturbed by what’s happening on the Korean Peninsula, and he gave a rather measured welcome to the prospect of working-level U.S.-North Korean talks, saying simply “having meetings is a good thing, not a bad thing.”
As for Poisonous Plant Pompeo, he said Sunday on ABC that Trump would be “very disappointed if Chairman Kim doesn't return to the negotiating table or conducts missile tests that are inconsistent with the agreements that they made when the two of them were together these three times.”
All of which leads Leif-Eric Easley to see one of two scenarios:
The first is the U.S. and North Korea “make an interim deal so North Korea can get economic benefits and Trump can claim a victory before the next election.” Second, “Trump will claim progress, hoping North Korea doesn’t test an ICBM or nuke before the election” while Kim waits it out, looking for a post-election deal regardless of who wins.
Either way, one reality remains. North Korea is a nuclear weapons nation, like it or not, and intends to remain so regardless of either the pressure of sanctions or the bait of economic blessings as promised by Trump.