John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN, spoke to Jung Min Noh of RFA’s Korean Service on March 19, just 3 days before the blunt-speaking lawyer was named by President Donald Trump to serve as his new national security adviser, in a telephone interview that focused on the North Korean nuclear weapons issue.
RFA: What do you think of President Trump’s decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un?
Bolton: Well it's obviously an unprecedented development and a very daring move, I think, on the part of President Trump. The real issue is whether the regime in North Korea, after talking for 25 years about its nuclear weapons program and committing on numerous occasions to give up that program, really is prepared to have a serious conversation or whether they're simply buying time to perfect the last stages of the nuclear weapons program and their ballistic missile program. So my hope is that President Trump can have a serious conversation with them about what the real objective should be which is denuclearizing North Korea, and if they're not prepared to have that kind of serious discussion, it could actually be a very short meeting.
RFA: You sound still skeptical about North Korea’s intentions in talking with President Trump. Do you expect the summit to be successful?
Bolton: I don't know that the North Koreans ever really expected that President Trump would accept the offer of a summit meeting and it's been some time now since the president's decision was announced. We've heard nothing publicly from North Korea. Now, maybe it's just an anomaly and perhaps the talks will go forward, but I think the positive aspect that we could see here is it's a way to cut through six months twelve months of preliminary negotiations. Let's have this conversation by May or even before that and let's see how serious North Korea really is. They've made commitments they’ve violated repeatedly in the past 25 years. I am skeptical that they're serious. I think they were trying to buy time but they've made the offer, the president has accepted, let's get on with it.
RFA: It is reported that you had a meeting with President Trump in early March. What sort of opinions did you share on North Korea?
Bolton: I don't comment publicly on my meetings with the president but I have written and spoken extensively on the North Korean threat. I think it's very dangerous, not just in Asia and the Pacific, but I think worldwide. I believe if North Korea really did have nuclear warheads and ballistic missile capabilities, they would sell them to anybody with enough hard currency. They'd sell it to the Ayatollahs in Iran, they'd sell it to terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda, they'd sell it to any aspiring nuclear weapons states. I think North Korea it really is a global threat and I think it has to be treated with great concern and great caution.
RFA: That meeting (with Trump) was a day before the agreement to hold a U.S.-North Korea summit was announced. Has there been any change in your views since then?
Bolton: The fact of North Korean interest in negotiations was made clear when they accepted South Korea's invitation to show up for the Winter Olympics. I think it was a mistake to understand that as anything other than North Korean propaganda, but it was clear then they were seeking an opportunity to distract attention from just how close they were to a capability to hit targets in North America with thermo-nuclear weapons. I think the pattern that North Korea has followed for decades – the same pattern that Iran followed – is that it used negotiations to camouflage their on-going nuclear and ballistic missile efforts. I think we should not fall for that ploy again. 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. If it's anything other than a conversation about how to do that, then I think it shows it's just camouflage for North Korea to continue working toward its long-sought objective of deliverable nuclear weapons.
RFA: What is your evaluation of CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who holds hawkish views on North Korea, becoming the next secretary of state?
Bolton: I think he's a realist about North Korea. You know, North Korea has made many commitments over the years to give up its nuclear weapons program and it's lied about them every single time. They violated every commitment they've made on nuclear weapons for the last 25 years. There's no reason to think that their behavior has changed. So I hope the Senate confirms Mike Pompeo as soon as possible. I think it's important to have a new secretary of state in place and I look forward to his leadership at the State Department.
RFA: What is your advice to President Trump ahead of the talks with North Korea?
Bolton: I think he's very familiar with the history of North Korea's duplicity on this subject. I don't think he has any illusions about this regime. I don't think he wants to waste a lot of time talking to them without the prospect of success. You know there a lot of considerations here but I believe that it could become very clear very early in this meeting whether North Korea is serious or not or whether they're just playing games, and so I think it's important if the president sees that they're just looking for a way to waste time, that he make the point that he's not there to waste time and that we expect real denuclearization, not talks about talks about denuclearization, but concretely how we're going to eliminate their program as quickly as possible. So if the meeting takes place, we'll see if that's the path that they follow.
RFA: What should the U.S. be prepared to offer North Korea in exchange for denuclearization? Economic aid? A peace treaty?
Bolton: I don't think we should offer them economic aid. That happened in the context of the Agreed Framework, where they took the heavy oil shipments and yet did not dismantle their nuclear program. There's no way we should give North Korea a peace treaty. They're lucky to have a meeting with the president of the United States. I think if they want economic progress for the people of North Korea, they should the end the charade of a divided peninsula. They should ask for reunification with South Korea. That's the best way to aid the people of North Korea.
RFA: If negotiations are not successful, there are concerns that the U.S. will turn to the option of military action. As one who has argued for military action, what is your proposed course of action in the event of failed talks?
Bolton: Let me be very clear. I don't favor military action to eliminate the North Korean nuclear program. Nobody wants to see that happen, but I also believe that it's a mistake to leave North Korea with nuclear weapons. And yet they are very close to achieving that objective. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford said last summer that he thought it was unimaginable to leave North Korea with nuclear weapons. That's the way I feel, too. We we've had 25 years of efforts at carrots and sticks with North Korea. They have played the West and the United States like a violin, and they've used that time to make considerable progress toward the objective of deliverable nuclear weapons. So President Trump has unattractive options in front of him, because he's inherited 25 years of failure, so that he doesn't have much time. Somebody said, you know, we can't kick the can down the road any further because there isn't any road left.
RFA: Experts who talk with North Korea say there is not enough time to prepare for summit talks with North Korea. What do you think?
Bolton: We have plenty of experts. The kind of expert we need really is less about North Korea, and more about nuclear weapons. I think we've got plenty of time. I think it's a mistake to treat this like a normal summit meeting, with months and months of preparation by lower-level people. We know what the subject is here, at least from the US point of view: It's North Korea eliminating, dismantling its nuclear weapons program and, as I say, we'd be happy to store the program in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. That's what the conversation ought to be about. If it's about anything else, it's a waste of time.
RFA: What are your thoughts about the inter-Korea summit talks scheduled for April and do you have any advice for South Korea ahead of this meeting?
I think the people of South Korea are very divided about how to treat North Korea. Many obviously support the current government in South Korea, but many others are deeply distrustful of anything the government of North Korea says. So I think everybody in South Korea, for their own peace and security, has to be very dubious about North Korea's commitment to anything that it says. And so that that is a word of caution to the government of South Korea before they agree to anything with North Korea.
Using military action to solve the North Korean nuclear issue is on the table but it presents many problems and the South Korean government is against this. Do you see military action as part of the solution to the North Korean problem?
Nobody wants to use military force, but I think sensible people don't want to see this bizarre regime in North Korea with nuclear weapons, not only because of the threat they pose but the threat that those weapons would be sold to others all around the world. So military action is very dangerous, but I think it's more dangerous if North Korea has a nuclear capability.