28.09.2019 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Will John Bolton’s Ousting Affect US Policy Towards DPRK?


On 10 September 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump dismissed National Security Advisor John Bolton. On his Twitter feed the President stated that Bolton’s “services were no longer needed at the White House.” “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration, and therefore, I asked John for his resignation, which was given to me this morning,” wrote the President. In addition, he thanked John for his service.

John Bolton occupied the post since 22 March 2018. While he was the National Security Advisor, there was occasional talk of his possible dismissal because his disagreements with Donald Trump over U.S. policies in Afghanistan, Iran, Venezuela and North Korea intensified over time.  John Bolton opted for a bellicose stance towards the DPRK, and publicly criticized Pyongyang’s launches of short-range ballistic missiles on more than one occasion. On 5 September 2019, during his official visit to Japan, the former National Security Advisor said that Pyongyang’s actions had violated U.N. Security Council sanctions, thereby expressing a completely different view of the situation to that of Donald Trump, who did not attach any significance to the launches and compared them to ‘tests of small weapons’. Earlier, John Bolton had talked about a preemptive strike against North Korea, which is why he was nicknamed ‘the advisor who undermined national security’ in Pyongyang. In 2000s, he played a key role in failed six party negotiations.

According to Reuters, Donald Trump listed a number of mistakes made by John Bolton while commenting on his dismissal. For instance, he said that the former National Security Advisor had offended Kim Jong-un by demanding that the latter “follow a ‘Libyan model’ and hand over all nuclear weapons”, which was peculiar, to say the least, considering the events of 2011 and the killing of Muammar Gaddafi. On 11 September, Donald Trump told reporters: “We were set back very badly when John Bolton talked about the Libyan model … what a disaster”. He also added: “I don’t blame Kim Jong-un for what he said after that, and he wanted nothing to do with John Bolton.”

However, it is unclear whether the former National Security Advisor’s statements on North Korea suggesting the talks between the two nations were on the brink of collapse played a key role in the decision to dismiss him. In order to maintain this dialogue, the United States has to show they are willing to change their approach. For example, the Bloomberg agency quoted three anonymous sources in their report stating that the decision to fire John Bolton had been made after a meeting on sanctions against Iran, held in the Oval Office on 10 September. In the lead-up to possible negotiations with President of Iran Hassan Rouhani, Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin discussed the feasibility of softening sanctions against this nation, however, John Bolton categorically opposed such a move.

In addition, the former National Security Advisor’s statements about the need for force (including preemptive strikes) to demonstrate the power of Pax Americana and for organizing “color revolutions” were very unpopular among military personnel and frightened Trump’s circle more than the people against whom these words were directed.

Now that John Bolton left, what is next? Anti-Trump jokesters have already suggested that the dismissal came about as a result of a recommendation from the DPRK. Others point out that recently, DPRK’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Choe Son-hui, proposed the United States and North Korea have working negotiations during the second half of September, and also insisted Washington adopt a new approach to Pyongyang. John Bolton’s dismissal hints at Donald Trump’s willingness to try a novel approach entailing a more restrained U.S. policy in relation to North Korea, which should encourage dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.

Not everyone is happy about this approach, including South Korean conservatives. According to professor Park Wan Gong, the ousting of John Bolton gives a tactical advantage to the United States when it comes to restarting negotiations with Pyongyang, but it will probably have no effect on Washington’s long-term objective, i.e. the complete denuclearization of North Korea.

Some other authors think that John Bolton’s departure is indicative of Donald Trump’s growing concern about his standing in the presidential race, after all he needs a significant diplomatic win in order to increase his chances of being re-elected. However, so far there have not been any “significant wins” or even notable outcomes. And yet Donald Trump does need to at least make it look as if he was solving important foreign policy issues successfully, be it in Afghanistan, Iran or North Korea.

Hence, in the current environment, there is growing concern about the unsteady nature of Trump administration’s national security policies, as the level of expertise among White House staff has fallen after the departure of John Bolton, and Donald Trump may resort to rash solutions with regards to the North Korean issue.

Still, the overall direction of these policies remains unchanged as is evidenced by Robert O’Brien’s appointment to replace John Bolton. The new National Security Advisor has an impressive track record in international mediation and conducting negotiations. He is also known to advocate the “peace through strength” concept. In the past, he worked with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was in favor of his candidacy for the position. Robert O’Brien was the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, and in this capacity, he worked on freeing hostages held in the Middle East and Afghanistan.  The author of this article would like to emphasize that such a role requires solid negotiating skills.

While America Slept, a book by Robert O’Brien published in 2016, is especially interesting in this context. It is a collection of essays on national security and foreign policy, critical of Barack Obama’s foreign policy approach that the author describes as one of conciliation and concessions, and because of which the world has become a more dangerous place.  In his opinion, the United States needs to become a strong nation that allies can have faith in and that enemies dare not test. Hence, reporters in South Korean media outlets think that the United States will take a tough stance, adopted by Mike Pompeo, in its dialogue with North Korea.

In the meantime, on 18 September, John Bolton made a statement that the current DPRK policy was bound to fail. Donald Trump immediately countered by saying that there was a need for a “new approach” to resolving issues, and reminded John Bolton of just how unsuccessful his policy on North Korea was.

In conclusion, to a certain extent the American leadership is divided, among them there are pragmatists and ideologues, who remind one of their Soviet counterparts in their unwillingness to see reality for what it is because of their ideological blinders. In the author’s opinion, Donald Trump is in the first camp, while John Bolton is in the latter.

Let us look at the relationship between the United States and the DPRK from this perspective.  Just as 10 years ago, John Bolton still views North Korea as evil (with a capital E), and any negotiations with this nation are feasible only when discussing the terms of its surrender. It was no accident that his speech in Hanoi became one of the reasons why the summit failed, and both sides were forced to walk away from the negotiations with nothing. And although there were other factors that contributed to the failed talks, John Bolton’s personality played a decisive role.

If the author’s assumptions are indeed correct, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, the two pragmatists, came to a realization that there was no compromise solution to the North Korea nuclear issue, and decided to de facto halt the negotiations, after all even if an issue cannot be resolved for good, one still can give it a try (or at least pretend to). Such a stance most likely made John Bolton nervous and, from his perspective, had all the appearances of a charade or a sly recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status.

However, does this mean that Donald Trump will be able to ensure progress is made in the inter-Korean dialogue now that John Bolton left? The answer is no, as the former National Security Advisor was not the only obstacle in its path. We can expect that the process will gather momentum as the parties’ willingness to negotiate increases. And ideally, another summit between Kim and Trump will be held by the end of the year, during which North Korean proposals will be partially accepted.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Please select digest to download: