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Bolton Slams Trump’s North Korea Policy 

Trump’s former national security advisor argues Pyongyang won’t give up its nukes.

Former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Sept. 30.
Former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Sept. 30. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Without ever mentioning U.S. President Donald Trump by name, former National Security Advisor John Bolton laid bare in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Monday the astounding scope of disagreement between him and his former boss over North Korea policy.

In his first public comments since being unceremoniously fired this month, Bolton said he does not believe North Korea is willing to give up its nuclear weapons and that the administration’s unpredictable behavior is undermining the United States at the negotiating table. Further, Bolton said the cancellation of military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, which Trump called off at the North’s behest, has weakened military readiness and that U.S. sanctions aren’t being effectively enforced.

Throughout Bolton’s 17-month tenure in the White House, it was obvious that he and Trump were never in alignment on key policy issues—and North Korea emerged early as a point of contention. But Monday’s address revealed that the president’s former top foreign-policy aide was entirely opposed to and did not believe in the basic assumptions underlying the administration’s premier diplomatic initiative.

In defending stalled talks with North Korea, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo frequently speaks of the “strategic decision” facing Pyongyang about whether it will choose a path of prosperity or cling to its nuclear weapons arsenal and continued isolation. On Monday, Bolton attacked that line of thinking: “The strategic decision [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un has made is to do whatever he can to keep his nuclear weapon capability.”

In his approach to North Korea, Trump has upended the accepted wisdom about how to deal with the isolated regime, abandoning extensive staff-level talks for a focus on summitry with Kim. That approach has resulted in a series of vague commitments but no concrete progress toward North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons. At the same time, Pyongyang has continued to test its missiles systems—moves that Bolton argued on Monday place it in violation of a series of U.N. sanctions.

At a meeting on the North Korea-South Korea border in June, Trump and Kim committed to restarting working-level talks, but in the following weeks North Korean officials stopped returning U.S. phone calls and stalled on their commitments to reopen negotiations. North Korean officials have said in recent weeks that they expect working-level talks to begin soon, but those talks have so far not materialized.

Bolton said on Monday that this focus on summitry has distracted the United States from the more important issue of preventing nuclear proliferation and ensuring that North Korea does not share its nuclear know-how and become the “Amazon” of nuclear weapons, as he put it.

“These are the questions that need to focus our attention—not whether we can get another summit with Kim Jong Un,” Bolton said. Asked whether this focus on “bromance” diplomacy could perhaps generate a breakthrough, Bolton demurred and declined to comment.

Trump’s focus on keeping the diplomatic process alive has left the sanctions regime that the United States worked hard to establish exposed to circumvention. U.N. investigators have concluded that that effort is growing increasingly sophisticated and includes ship-to-ship transfers of commodities and cyberoperations to generate cash for the regime.

“If you ask for consistent behavior of others, you have to express consistent behavior yourself,” Bolton said, referring to the sanctions regime, the closest he came to offering a broader critique of the Trump administration.

In the absence of a negotiated solution to the North Korean nuclear standoff, Bolton advocated for one of three options: regime change in Pyongyang, working in cooperation with China to reunify the North and the South, or contemplating U.S. military action against North Korea.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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