Donald Trump wanted another summit with Kim Jong-un. John Bolton wanted to crack down on Pyongyang, while North Korea wanted Bolton out. Looks like two of the three got what they wanted:
North Korea and the United States will resume negotiations Saturday, marking the first official talks between the two sides since President Trump met Kim Jong in June, the North Korean government announced Tuesday.
North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said the two countries “agreed to hold a working-level discussion on October 5th, following a preliminary contact on the 4th,” according to a statement carried by North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency.
“I expect the working-level talks to accelerate positive developments in DPRK-U.S. relations,” Choe said, using the initials of her country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “Our representatives are ready to attend the working-level talks with the United States.”
Is it a coincidence that this sudden warmth follows just three weeks after Bolton got ousted as national security adviser? Couldn’t possibly be a coincidence. Pyongyang complained loud and long about Bolton’s presence in the mix of the diplomatic and security discussions, even more than they have complained about Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State. Trump won’t part with his closest Cabinet official, but Bolton was expendable — a relatively cheap price to get North Korea back to the table.
Ten days ago, North Korea made its pleasure at the change known, hinting that the change would facilitate a restart:
North Korea’s new envoy to nuclear talks with the United States on Friday welcomed the ouster of President Trump’s former National Security Adviser, John R. Bolton, and the president’s suggestion that Washington would use a “new method” in negotiating with the North.
The envoy, Kim Myong-gil, hailed Mr. Trump’s “wise political decision” to approach North Korea-United States relations “from a more practical point of view” now that “a nasty troublemaker” — an apparent reference to Mr. Bolton — was out.
The decision to seek a new method was “the manifestation of the political perception and disposition peculiar to President Trump, which no preceding U.S. chief executives even wanted to think of nor were able to do,” Mr. Kim said in a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency on Friday.
One could call Bolton’s dismissal a quid pro quo in that sense, certainly diplomatically legitimate but still not necessarily wise. North Korea had apparently decided it wouldn’t negotiate with Bolton still around, in part because of the “Libya option” favored by Bolton, in which Pyongyang would have to totally surrender all its nuclear-weapons components before seeing any sanctions relief. That’s not much of a deal from their perspective, especially seeing how Moammar Qaddafi ended up in relation to US and Western forces. It’s not a coincidence either that Trump publicly belittled Bolton’s “Libya option” after firing him. If quid pro quo is too politically loaded a term these days, call it a prerequisite instead, or perhaps a password for entrée to a new round of talks.
Basically, the range for a deal has improved for North Korea, although not necessarily to any great effect. Yesterday, Bolton made his feelings publicly known about Trump’s diplomatic pas de deux with Kim and the likelihood they will honor any result without a boot on their neck. Bolton insisted that the US had not seen any benefit from Trump’s engagement, and that only a credible military threat would part Kim from his nuclear weapons program. Furthermore, Bolton hinted that Trump had lost the thread of what the talks were supposed to accomplish, although he never directly referenced his former boss:
Without mentioning Mr. Trump by name, Mr. Bolton said he wanted to “speak in unvarnished terms about the threat posed by North Korea,” and made it clear that he thought the president’s outreach to Mr. Kim had benefited only one side. And while Mr. Trump has made a deal with Mr. Kim one of his signature foreign policy goals, Mr. Bolton asserted that there had been no gains with his approach.
“The strategic decision Kim Jong-un is operating through is that he will do whatever he can to keep a deliverable nuclear weapons capability and to develop and enhance it further,” Mr. Bolton said during an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Under current circumstances, he will never give up the nuclear weapons voluntarily.” …
Stopping nuclear proliferation in the Korean Peninsula is where the United States needs “to focus our attention,” Mr. Bolton said, “not can we get another summit with Kim Jong-un or what the state of staff-level negotiations are to achieve a commitment from North Korea it will never honor.”
Ouch. It’s not easy to dismiss Bolton on this point, too. So far Trump has gotten some photo ops and an end to nuclear tests out of Kim, the latter of which might have been necessitated by the collapse of their testing field at Punggye-Ri early last year anyway. They also have halted their longer range ballistic missile tests, although they have restarted short-range tests and are proceeding to work on ballistic-launch capability from submarines, a frightening game-changer. None of those concessions are significant enough to have increased the safety margins for the US and our allies, and all of them can be nearly instantly reversed, even if North Korea was inclined to honor agreements, which they aren’t.
The gladhanding might be worthwhile as a change in tone, but that’s not the necessity. At some point, all of the cheeriness between Kim and Trump has to pay off in rolling back their nuclear program significantly and permanently. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time. This time around Trump needs results, and now he has a chance to prove Bolton wrong by getting them — or right by failing to do so.