John Bolton’s Awful Legacy on North Korea

John Bolton never misses an opportunity to wax imperiously about US policy on North Korea. Not surprisingly, the former national security adviser took the opportunity to do so again at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on September 30. In his first speech after losing his job, he pontificated about the Trump administration’s negotiating strategy, confidently asserting that Washington’s assessment of Kim Jong Un’s intentions is woefully misinformed and recommending how the United States can browbeat North Korea into nuclear disarmament. Bolton is unable or unwilling to adapt his views to changing circumstances. The speech and question-and-answer session that followed only confirmed how out of touch he really is on the subject. It is bewildering that anybody should put more weight on his advocacy of strangling the North with sanctions, using military force to change the regime in Pyongyang and proposing that North Korea give up all its nuclear weapons before it receives any of the benefits it seeks, rather than constructing a plausible, step-by-step negotiating framework based on mutual and reciprocal concessions that can actually succeed.

A Foolish Consistency

(Photo: iStock)

Bolton was given the red-carpet treatment by his hosts and treated like a sage on North Korea policy even though he has been consistently wrong on North Korea as a pundit and policymaker. In fact, he is one of the prime reasons North Korea has made significant advances in developing nuclear weapons over the last 20 years, starting with his tenure in the Bush administration. His militant and threatening rhetoric toward the North, uncompromising positions, contempt for negotiations and failing campaign of “maximum pressure” have done much to convince North Korea that the US was bent on toppling the Kim regime and that nuclear weapons are its best guarantee of survival.

Bolton has been a proverbial human wrecking ball to North Korea diplomacy throughout his extensive career in government. His machinations to scuttle any negotiated resolution of the North Korean nuclear threat go back to the early years of the George W. Bush administration, when he led the charge to terminate the Clinton-era Agreed Framework during his tenure as US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs. The agreement successfully curtailed the North’s program by shuttering the plutonium reprocessing facility at Yongbyon and granting International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors considerable monitoring access. US officials responsible for monitoring North Korean compliance understood implementation would be imperfect, but Bolton saw these problems as an opportunity to kill the deal completely. He took advantage of US intelligence community (IC) assessments about the North’s covert enrichment activity and fiercely lobbied for Washington to declare the Agreed Framework a dead letter. As he would later boast in his memoir, “I…told representatives of the IC what I planned to do with their analysis—go straight for the Agreed Framework’s jugular.”[1]

In the fall of 2002, Bolton got his wish. The Agreed Framework dissolved with no viable replacement, but it came at a tremendous strategic cost: an acceleration of the Kim regime’s nuclear weapons program, culminating in the testing of its first nuclear device in October 2006. Bolton’s unremitting hostility to an imperfect deal had the adverse effect of freeing the North Koreans from restrictions on their nuclear work, including the production of weapons-grade plutonium and the expansion of its uranium enrichment capacity. This development wasn’t lost on North Korean negotiators, who have referred to Bolton over the years as the “father of their nuclear weapons program.”

Bolton’s views of North Korea have remained consistent over the years: The Kim regime is inherently duplicitous and all but certain to take the United States for a ride. And because the North is so fundamentally hostile to American interests, the only conceivable way any US administration can deal with the North Korean “terrorist state” is through unrelenting economic pressure and diktats calling for the North’s unconditional surrender. In the world according to Bolton, substantive negotiations are nothing but a waste of time.

Bolton Strikes Again

Thirteen years after he left the US State Department, there is no evidence Bolton has accepted any responsibility for his poor judgment. If anything, he has been more brazen, promoting the same stale proposals guaranteed to elicit a hostile North Korean rejection. In the weeks prior to the June 2018 Singapore Summit between US President Trump and Kim Jong Un, the newly inaugurated national security adviser took to the airwaves to propose that the United States provide the North with economic concessions, political normalization and security assurances only after North Korea shipped its entire nuclear arsenal and infrastructure to Oak Ridge, Tennessee for destruction. Given the bloody fate that awaited Muammar al-Qaddafi less than seven years after trading away his own weapons of mass destruction programs, Kim predictably interpreted Bolton’s comments as a threat to his personal survival. It took the last-minute mediation of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the perseverance of Trump and Kim to salvage the summit. Less than two months later, Bolton offered the same package on a completely unrealistic one-year timeline. Bolton’s statements were nothing short of an act of malice and a transparent attempt to kill bilateral US-DPRK diplomatic track before it even started.

Bolton’s participation in the second US-DPRK summit in Hanoi, Vietnam last February, however, was his gravest offense. By all accounts, there was an opportunity at the summit to reach a partial agreement on dismantling the massive Yongbyon nuclear research facility. But at the eleventh hour, Bolton convinced Trump to put another all-or-nothing proposal on the table which demanded the North’s complete, immediate and unconditional nuclear surrender in return for US agreement to lift all sanctions on North Korea. Kim, as Bolton almost certainly expected, rejected the proposal. As a result, the US missed an opportunity to cement an important if limited agreement on the road to a more comprehensive denuclearization-for-normalization accord. Seven months after the collapse of the Hanoi Summit, Pyongyang remains embittered by what they perceived as Washington’s lack of seriousness.

Bolton’s departure from the scene helped pave the way for the US and North Korea to resume working-level negotiations earlier this month in Stockholm. Trump’s public musings of a “new method” for United States engagement with the North kindled Pyongyang’s interest in continuing a dialogue Bolton nearly destroyed. At the very least, his absence could provide Trump and his chief negotiator, Stephen Biegun, with their best opportunity in over a year to craft a negotiating framework that stresses compromise, flexibility and step-by-step actions on the part of both parties. But the quick collapse of the Stockholm talks should be a lesson to Trump: While Bolton’s resignation was probably necessary to breathe new life into the diplomatic option with the North Koreans, it is far from being sufficient. It will take a considerable amount of time and some extreme diplomatic ingenuity to undo the demolition job left over by the last national security adviser. The North Korean Foreign Ministry’s description of the talks this month as “sickening,” and its reaffirmation of Kim Jong Un’s end-of-year deadline for negotiations to produce a deal suggest that Biegun has an uphill climb in convincing North Korea that the United States is willing and able to press forward in good faith and treat the dispiriting encounter in Hanoi as old history.


With Bolton no longer steering the wheel of the national security apparatus, the veteran bureaucratic infighter is preparing a tell-all book about his time in the administration. As he did during his first memoir in 2008, Bolton is sure to pump himself up as the smartest guy in the room and trash his colleagues as misfits and stooges. On the ongoing impeachment drama over Ukraine, history could look kindly on him as a professional who tried to flag potential abuses of presidential power. But the record will be much less favorable to him on North Korea, where he devoted two decades of service to stonewall any diplomatic progress in reducing the North Korean nuclear threat to the US and its allies. Thanks to Bolton, the United States may now be confronting a depressing reality: nuclear diplomacy with the North is taking its last, dying breath.

  1. [1]

    John Bolton, Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations (New York: Threshold Editions, 2008), 107.

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