After a string of short-range missile tests, North Korea tried to freshen its stale relations with the United States last week by calling for a high-level meeting by the end of September. But now, another factor might push the two countries back to the negotiation table, analysts say — Trump’s ousting of national security adviser John Bolton.
On Tuesday, President Trump tweeted Bolton’s “services are no longer needed” and that he had asked Bolton — the administration’s fourth national security adviser — for a letter of resignation. The next day, Trump confirmed that Bolton’s dismissal partly had to do with North Korea, calling Bolton’s deal-making with Kim Jong Un a “disaster.”
“We were set back very badly when John Bolton talked about the Libya model … what a disaster,” Trump said Wednesday. “He’s using that to make a deal with North Korea? And I don’t blame Kim Jong Un for what he said after that — and he wanted nothing to do with John Bolton.
“That’s not a question of being tough,” Trump continued. “That’s a question of being not smart to say something like that.”
Experts are wondering what Bolton’s exit could mean for nuclear talks, but agree that Kim’s top officials are likely relieved to be working with someone else.
“It’s good for diplomacy,” John Delury, a North Korea analyst and associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, told UPI. “It’s hard to imagine diplomacy with North Korea really moving forward all the way when the president’s top adviser is one of the key opponents of engagement.”
It’s no secret that Bolton rubbed North Korea the wrong way and many North Korea analysts saw Bolton’s exit coming.
In May, a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman called Bolton a “warmonger,” partly because of Bolton’s hard-line policies against Kim and his support of economic sanctions against Pyongyang.
Since Bolton joined the administration, he and Trump have been at odds about North Korea.
Trump was publicly declaring that he and Kim “fell in love.” Bolton was pushing ideas of regime change by talking about following the “Libya model,” which refers to a 2003 agreement in which the United States offered Libya security assurance in exchange for its nuclear weapons and then later supported rebels who assassinated the country’s leader.
“I’m not surprised at all by Bolton’s leave,” C. Harrison Kim, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and author of the book, Heroes and Toilers: Work as Life in Postwar North Korea, told UPI.
“For Trump, [North Korea] was going to be his lasting legacy and his contribution toward world peace. It’s pretty clear that it was Bolton who wanted to change the course … who stood in the way of engagement with Kim Jong Un.”
But getting rid of Bolton is no silver bullet, Harrison Kim said, and it shows “how messed up the situation is in the White House.”
“When it comes to East Asia and North Korea, there are very few people on the Republican side who are as experienced and knowledgeable as John Bolton. But as far as what Trump was trying to do, it was a horrible mismatch from the beginning,” he said. “The frequent change in security advisers shows that the White House never had a good knowledge base on foreign relations, basically.”
What happens next
Bolton’s departure sends two possible messages to Pyongyang: Negotiations might be able to start fresh, and Trump was listening when North Korea complained about his national security adviser.
“In my reading of Kim Jong Un, I think he wants deal-making and he wants to change the relationship with the United States,” Delury said. “Trump getting rid of Bolton suggests to Kim Jong Un that Trump is very serious and he acknowledges what was part of the problem with changing the U.S.’ relationship with North Korea. And that’s a very strong message.”
However, much of the future hinges on who Trump will hire next and where that person will stand on key North Korea issues. So far, nuclear talks have largely been stalled because both Washington and Pyongyang can’t agree on the concessions they need to see in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
North Korea has dismantled key facilities at a missile launching station, blown up guard posts in the DMZ, returned U.S. soldier remains from the Korean War and kept long-range ballistic missile tests under wraps. North Korea argues that’s enough to get something in return, but the United States seems to want more.
“Within the year, I think the U.S. has to seriously consider lifting the sanctions against North Korea,” Harrison Kim said. “That’s the next step, and I think Trump is willing to do it.”
No matter who’s behind Trump, denuclearization will not be an easy road.
“Trying to secure actual denuclearization steps through diplomacy with Pyongyang is a worthy endeavor, especially if talks help extend a moratorium on North Korean asymmetric attacks and nuclear and long-range missile tests,” Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told UPI. “But final, fully verified denuclearization remains a distant goal.”
“Blaming it all on Bolton is sort of an easy out,” Delury agreed. “That also means that, with Bolton gone, we’re not just going to snap our fingers and there’s going to be peace and denuclearization on the peninsula. It’s going to remain very difficult.”