Will John Bolton sabotage peace in Korea?
North Korea finally says it's ready to give up its nukes. The price, as revealed via South Korea on Sunday, is twofold: a formal end to the Korean War, which has stagnated at cease-fire for more than half a century, and a promise that the United States will not invade.
These demands are not altogether unexpected. After all, Pyongyang has for years made clear its primary aim in building a nuclear arsenal is to make the cost of forcible, external regime change catastrophically high: "History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasure sword for frustrating outsiders' aggression," North Korean state-run media editorialized in January 2016.
Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi's Libya are, for the Kim regime, the ultimate negative object lesson. Neither could "escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations of nuclear development and giving up undeclared programs of their own accord," the editorial continued. Neither dictator could retain political power without retaining nuclear power. For Kim, the necessity of building warheads seemed clear.
Recognizing this dynamic was not difficult, and many foreign policy commentators, particularly those in the realist and noninterventionist camps, did. "North Korea is engaged in a huge game of blackmail," explained military historian Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich last year. "They are, notwithstanding military power, an exceedingly weak and arguably very fragile regime, and my guess is their principle objective is to remain in power," he continued. "So they are engaged in a complicated process of both trying to blackmail the West, and blackmail South Korea, and, most importantly, trying to blackmail China, [to] keep adversaries at bay and continue to be able to attract the kind of support they need to continue to exist."
Pyongyang openly explained its survivalist motivations, and though we may oppose their ethics — or indeed anything that prolongs Kim's wretched government — the internal logic makes sense given the United States' recent history of regime change as a foreign policy priority.
Newly crowned National Security Adviser John Bolton is among those who did not recognize this. His admitted goal is preventive war on North Korea, a military first strike unprovoked by any imminent threat of North Korean attack on the U.S. or her allies and undeterred by the enormous human suffering, destruction, and chaos it would entail. He is a consistent advocate of regime change — to the delusional point of suggesting Kim voluntarily surrender his throne — and erroneously claims the purpose of Kim's nuclear arsenal is not power-mad self-preservation but suicidal worldwide terror.
Worse yet for our present circumstances, Bolton has long sought to undercut diplomatic options to resolve North Korean tensions, writing in his 2007 memoir that he only came around to talks between Pyongyang and the George W. Bush administration in 2002 in hopes that their failure would make war more feasible. "My first reaction was dismay," Bolton reflected of learning negotiations would happen. Yet "the more I thought about it," he continued, "the more positive I became." The North Koreans "were what they were," he mused, so diplomacy would quickly flounder.
Since President Trump's upcoming summit with Kim was announced, Bolton has pushed for Libya-style denuclearization as the only acceptable outcome. "I think we should insist that if this meeting is going to take place, it will be similar to discussions we had with Libya 13 or 14 years ago: how to pack up their nuclear weapons program and take it to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which is where the Libyan nuclear program [is]," he said in a radio interview in March.
Following the Sunday announcement, Bolton made the same argument on CBS and Fox News, specifically and repeatedly citing Libya — now a failed state with a dead dictator deposed with American help — as his model for North Korea's future. The pace of denuclearization Bolton envisions is unrealistic, even with complete cooperation from Pyongyang, and these comments could only have been more reckless and counterproductive if he had mentioned Iraq, too.
In this guidance, Bolton is either troublingly ignorant or deliberately seeking to undermine the Trump-Kim summit and the important progress toward peace North Korea has made this spring. As he is recognized even by his critics as an informed and intelligent man, the first option seems unlikely. More probable is the conclusion that Bolton is repeating the treacherous "support" for diplomacy he offered during the Bush years, proposing unacceptable and, in this case, uniquely off-putting outcomes that will cause Pyongyang to doubt Washington's intentions and push the talks toward failure. Such failure is not only a loss for the Korean Peninsula; it also puts U.S. security at jeopardy by raising the likelihood of war.
North Korea has finally opened a door to meaningful negotiations, and its present asking price of a peace treaty and a pledge against invasion is far more reasonable than the regime's past bombast. Though it would be naïve to think Pyongyang has no underlying plans or motives that run counter to Washington's aims, it is downright dangerous to sabotage negotiations by making paradigmatic the site of a U.S. military intervention and regime change in which Kim's analogue was brutally killed. If that is the situation on offer, Kim is sure to retract his concession and return to his old pattern of escalation in a bid to avoid Gadhafi's fate.