02.07.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

What we Learned about Korean Issues from John Bolton’s Memoirs


On 24 June a US court rejected a bid by the US government to block publication of the memoirs of John Bolton, a former national security adviser to US President Donald Trump.

It’s worth recalling that John Bolton, the arch-hawk and conservative who was jokingly called the godfather of the DPRK’s nuclear program for his activities in the 2000s, worked in the White House for 17 months before being fired by Trump in September 2019 after the pair clashed over various political issues, including North Korea.

Following the book’s publication, Trump branded Bolton “a wacko” and accused him of divulging classified information, while Secretary of State Pompeo added: “It is both sad and dangerous that John Bolton’s final public role is that of a traitor who damaged America by violating his sacred trust with its people.” Seoul’s official reaction was similar: Moon’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, said that Bolton’s unilateral disclosure of the contents of negotiations violated the core principles of diplomacy and undermined trust between the governments. Chung added that illegitimate acts like this could greatly harm the two countries in terms of ensuring security as well as in their efforts to preserve and develop a common strategy for the US-South Korean alliance. Bolton’s story was labelled as distorted and inaccurate.  Responding in the course of an interview on Fox News, Bolton said it would be a “disservice” to the South Korean people if he didn’t write the truth.

Overall Bolton’s memoirs are acutely reminiscent of the recollections of Nazi generals who claimed they would have defeated everyone if it hadn’t been for the stupid Fuhrer. The whole thrust of the book is that Trump was more concerned about being re-elected  as president than he was about US national security interests. However, his memoirs do contain a lot of interesting information which merits comment.

Firstly, we have confirmation of the role played by Bolton in Hanoi, when he proposed the “Libyan model” to Kim at the eleventh hour of negotiations.   After that, according to Trump, “all hell broke out”, although Bolton apparently did not directly mean that Kim Jong-un would suffer Gaddafi’s fate, but rather what went before that: firstly force North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programs, and then ply the country with concessions. The problem with that approach is that, from 2011 onwards, the “Libyan model” is taken to mean only one thing  – a repetition of the murder of Muammar Gaddafi by the rebels.  In the words of the US president, the DPRK leader “rightfully went ‘ballistic’ like a missile” and did not want Bolton next to him.

Trump states that after the end of the negotiations, he asked Bolton: “What the hell were you thinking?” But the latter remained silent and merely apologized. “I should have fired him right then and there!”

Bolton himself sets out the situation differently – he wanted to sabotage the negotiations, and convinced the President that if Trump left them, everything would be all right because there was no point in rushing.

Trump himself saw three possible outcomes for the Hanoi summit: a big deal, a small deal or walking away from the table. In the end, he realized that a big deal wouldn’t happen because Kim hadn’t taken the strategic decision to abandon nuclear weapons, while a small deal seemed an insufficiently dramatic result, especially since the President didn’t want to abandon sanctions. Kim proposed dismantling Yongbyon (in fact, also sharing information about other facilities, allowing expert access to the destroyed testing site, and converting the verbal obligation for a moratorium on testing and missile launches into a legally-framed document), but Trump wanted more and, if Bolton is to be believed, “pleaded with Kim to add something to his proposal.”  Kim refused and Trump “walked away from the table.”

As a result, as analyst Sue Mi Terry noted in her book review, Trump acted on the principle “ditch the girl before she ditches you”. A hiatus in negotiations would look good and give him leverage in the next round.

Secondly, Bolton uncovers the role of Seoul, which, positioning itself as the main mediator between Pyongyang and Washington, in fact misinformed America over the North’s intentions, passed off some of its own ideas as North Korean and was engaged more in self-promotion than in genuinely facilitating dialogue.

According to him, the whole “diplomatic fandango” was more about Moon’s political agenda than anything else. And from Bolton’s point of view, the decision to meet Kim in Singapore was a “foolish mistake,” while Trump’s desire to invite Kim to the White House was “a potential disaster of enormous magnitude.”

There is no shortage of examples.

  • Bolton writes that the South Korean President conveyed the US President the North Korean leader’s promise to carry out complete denuclearization and “consent to scrapping his nuclear arsenal.”
  • Moreover, Moon pressed strongly for a Trump-Kim summit in Panmunjom, to be followed by a trilateral summit between Moon, Trump and Kim, but the idea was rejected by Kim, who preferred Singapore.
  • During a May 2018 visit to the US, the Blue House National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong was communicating to Bolton “Kim Jong-un’s consent to complete denuclearization” and was noting “President Moon Jae-in’s ability to convince Kim” to agree to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID). Emboldened by Chung’s assurances, the US decided to hold the first US-North summit in Singapore on 12 June 2018. However, North Korea never agreed to denuclearization based on the CVID formula and was insisting on denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula, which included the withdrawal of US troops from Korea, the rejection of US nuclear weapons in South Korea and Japan, and removal of the American nuclear umbrella.
  • As for the proposal to end the Korean War, at first Bolton thought it was North Korea’s idea, but it turned out to be a Moon initiative and one strand of his election campaign promises within the unification agenda framework. Like the project to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, which Bolton described as “a schizophrenic idea of ​​President Moon Jae-in.”
  • And even after the setback, in the aftermath of the Hanoi summit, Chung Eui-yong was telling Bolton over the phone that if North Korea was disposing of its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, that signaled “they had entered the phase of irreversible denuclearization.”

Thirdly, Bolton let slip that during the June 2018 summit in Singapore Donald Trump told Kim Jong-un that he was open to lifting UN sanctions on the regime.

According to Bolton, at the end of the meeting Kim told Trump that he was glad the two had agreed to follow the “action for action” approach and asked if the lifting of UN sanctions would be the next. Trump replied that he was “open to it and wanted to think about it”, after which Kim left with optimistic expectations. It is worth noting that this explains both the hopes that the parties were nurturing at the beginning of the Hanoi summit, and Kim Jong-un’s tone at the end of 2019, namely: we thought that sanctions could be lifted, but now realize that it was stupid to even dream of such a thing.

In addition, when Pompeo told Trump that North Korea wanted security guarantees, Trump replied that building trust was the smartest thing he had said on Pyongyang in months.

Bolton also confirms that, when asked by Kim how he viewed him, Trump replied that he loved the question and told Kim that he saw him “as really smart, quite secretive, a very good person, totally sincere, with a great personality.”

Fourthly, Trump “didn’t understand why we had fought the Korean War and why we still had so many troops on the Peninsula, not to mention those war games” and, we are led to believe, repeatedly bemoaned the US-South Korea joint military exercises as being expensive, provocative and a waste of money. “So, when Kim said he wanted the US to reduce or eliminate the exercises, Trump said he would override the generals and do so” – without consulting with Seoul, the State Department or the Pentagon.

In addition, according to the memoirs, Trump threatened to pull US forces out of Korea if Seoul refused to increase its financial contribution towards the costs of stationing troops to five billion dollars, but South Korea’s Minister of Defense rejected this claim on 24 June 2020.

Of course, all this information needs to be verified again. As the South Korean press wrote: “it is difficult to fully determine the veracity of the claims in the memoirs. We will have to wait some time for the declassification of materials in order to cross-check them with government documents”.

However, much of what has been said chimes with the correspondent’s conclusions, including in relation to the position of Seoul. It is no coincidence that the conservative Chunyan Ilbo noted in its editorial: “If Bolton’s recollections are true, we cannot rule out the possibility that Moon and his administration stretched out the meaning of what Kim meant by denuclearization and passed it on to Washington.”

And it doesn’t matter so much whether Moon was deceived or if he was playing games.  The point is that we now see the fruits of this policy.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (Hist.), Lead Researcher at the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of the Far East of the Russian Academy of Sciences, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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