Donald Trump wants a deal with North Korea. His national security adviser thinks the North Koreans can’t be dealt with. And North Korea thinks he’s “human scum.”
North Korea’s latest diatribe against the United States — and specifically a “repugnant” national security adviser, John Bolton — spotlights a core tension within the Trump administration as the president seeks a nuclear deal with North Korea that he hopes might earn him a Nobel Peace Prize.
Bolton is famously contemptuous of what he considers naïve U.S. diplomacy with foreign adversaries who can only be trusted to cheat and lie. Prominent on his list is North Korea itself, which he has written “will never give up nuclear weapons voluntarily,” calling past U.S. diplomatic forays with the country “embarrassments.”
Trump, too, believes America has struck “terrible deals” for decades. And he shared Bolton’s intense animus for the Iran nuclear deal, Trump torpedoed last week. But in the case of North Korea, even some Trump supporters worry the president is too eager for a deal that could dazzle the world and reap him huge political rewards.
The question now is whether Trump and Bolton can strike a constructive balance — or whether they might wind up at cross-purposes on one of the most important diplomatic experiments in U.S. history.
“The North’s calculation appears to be that there is space between Trump — who has trumpeted the idea of the end of the Korean war and seems enamored with the idea and imagery of the summit — and Bolton, who has taken a hard line on denuclearization,” said Laura Rosenberger, a former Obama national security council official who was among U.S. officials to join talks with North Koreans during the Bush administration.
“Pyongyang appears to hope that Trump’s desire for a win and the show of the summit will have him marginalize Bolton if forced to choose between his approach and the summit,” she added.
Rosenberger and others called it revealing that Tuesday’s bellicose statement from a top North Korean diplomat focused on Bolton, without mentioning Trump personally. It denounced hardline remarks the Trump aide made in Sunday interviews that set a high bar for Pyongyang to roll back its nuclear program prior to any sanctions relief.
“We shed light on the quality of Bolton already in the past, and we do not hide our feelings of repugnance toward him,” said the statement, issued by the state run Korean Central News Agency and attributed to Kim Kye Gwan, a top foreign ministry official and arms negotiator.
The statement seemed to cast doubt on Trump’s planned June 12 summit with Kim, although White House officials said Wednesday they expect the meeting to occur as planned.
Bolton is no stranger to North Korea’s cult-like military dictatorship: In August 2003, an article in North Korean state media branded him “rude human scum” with a “psychopathological condition,” and said the country would not deal with Bolton, then President George W. Bush’s chief arms control negotiator. (“Probably the highest accolade I ever received during all my service in the Bush years,” Bolton would later write.)
The article was responding to Bolton’s insistence at the time that North Korea dismantle its nuclear program with no reward from the United States.
Bolton has only slightly softened his position in the 15 years since, even as North Korea’s nuclear program has dramatically expanded. Kim is now believed to possess as many as 60 nuclear warheads and has made major advances in that missile technology that would allow him to deliver them to the United States.
In his 2007 book “Surrender Is Not An Option,” Bolton wrote that North Korea lures the United States to the bargaining table only to extract short-term concessions and play for time. “The DPRK has followed this game plan successfully many times, and it has every reason to believe it will continue to succeed in the future,” Bolton wrote. The 2008 collapse of Bush-era talks only further convinced him of Pyongyang’s mendacity.
Trump, by contrast, comes fresh to the North Korean puzzle — something that alarms seasoned national security hands who say he lacks the diplomatic scar tissue that makes veterans like Bolton so skeptical of the prospects for a deal.
“They’re taking advantage of Trump, who doesn’t know the history of all of this,” said another former Bush administration official who participated in nuclear talks with Pyongyang in the mid-2000s.
"Bolton gets that big-time, and that’s why he’s been sketching out, in all of his public appearances, a long list of things we need from the North Koreans,” the former official added.
Trump, for instance, has said that a deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to dismantle his nuclear complex is “very much in the making” and “will be good for the world.” On Sunday, Bolton took a far more cautious tone, suggesting that the Kim summit might be little more than a listening session: “It may be that Kim Jong Un has some ideas, and we should hear him out,” Bolton said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
Particularly infuriating the North Koreans was Bolton’s invocation on Sunday of Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi’s decision to surrender his early-stage nuclear weapons infrastructure. Tuesday’s official statement made several references to Libya, noting that the country had since “met [a] miserable fate.”
Some North Korea experts even speculated that Bolton made Draconian remarks on Sunday with the intention of undermining the upcoming summit.
“Bolton is no doubt already telling Trump, ‘See I told you so,’” tweeted Kingston Reif, an analyst at the Arms Control Association, a disarmament advocacy group. “Bolton knew exactly what he was doing in repeatedly setting the (wildly unrealistic) expectation for the summit [of] immediate, Libya-style [de]nuclearization — in return for nothing until that is achieved.”
A national security council spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Bolton is not the only voice shaping the approach to North Korea, of course: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has met twice in Pyongyang with Kim, and Trump officials say Pompeo will assume a bigger role in a process that has been driven mainly by the NSC’s top Asia official, Matthew Pottinger.
Pompeo has struck a less severe tone than Bolton, even describing his “warm” conversations with Kim. And in his own Sunday television appearances, Pompeo touted the economic benefits Kim’s impoverished country might win in a nuclear agreement, although he, too has insisted that Kim must surrender his nuclear program completely.
If would further complicates matters for Bolton if Trump and Pompeo have a shared appetite for a deal. Pompeo has bonded with Trump since joining the president’s cabinet as CIA director in early 2017. Bolton, who arrived at the White House last month, is not as close to Trump. That said, his famously stern views are one reason Trump hired him.
Bolton has waved off questions about his past public statements, noting that he is in a different role now and views himself as not only an adviser to Trump but, above all, an implementer of his decisions.
Even so, friends and rivals alike question whether the strong-willed Bolton can implement what he sees as a superficial deal that might deliver winning headlines, while removing pressure on a North Korean regime with little intention of delivering on its promises.
Trump himself insisted in late April that he’s “not going to be played” by North Korea. But he has also called it “very nice” that “everyone thinks” he deserves a Nobel Prize for his role in a nascent peace process between North Korea and South Korea.
“President Trump is determined to see this opportunity through, hopeful that we can get a real breakthrough,” Bolton said Sunday on “Face the Nation.”
“But we’re not naive,” he added.
Josh Meyer contributed to this report.