“My first reaction was dismay,” incoming National Security Advisor John Bolton wrote in his 2007 memoir of learning there would be talks between the George W. Bush administration and North Korea in 2002. Yet “the more I thought about it,” Bolton continued, “the more positive I became.” The North Koreans “were what they were,” he reasoned, so the negotiations would be disastrous and diplomacy discredited as an approach to grappling with North Korean nuclear weapons development. Preventive war on Pyongyang, Bolton’s admitted goal, would be one step closer.
More than a decade later, Bolton seems to have the same underhanded plan for President Trump’s forthcoming talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. “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],” Bolton argued in a Radio Free Asia (RFA) interview published Friday.
Asked what Trump should be prepared to give the North Koreans in exchange for such total denuclearization, Bolton shot down the interviewer’s two suggestions of a peace treaty or economic aid, and he posited no alternative offering. “There’s no way we should give North Korea a peace treaty,” he said. “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.”
Thus, if Trump takes his new national security advisor’s advice, at the meeting in May he will expect Kim to follow in the footsteps of Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan dictator was deposed and killed in U.S.-supported regime change after he surrendered his nukes to Washington. Next, Trump will tell Kim to voluntarily remove himself from power and offer him exactly nothing in return.
Bolton’s scenario is wildly unrealistic, and it is unrealistic on purpose. Denuclearization is already an improbable goal, as Bolton no doubt knows. Denuclearization patterned after that of a failed state which North Korean officials regularly cite as a reason to hold onto their nukes is even less likely. And Libyan-style denuclearization accompanied by Kim’s voluntary relinquishment of power—all still without a single concession from Washington—is more implausible still.
If Trump goes into his talks with Kim making these demands, it will push us much closer to war, just as Bolton hoped with the Bush administration negotiations in 2002.
And though he insisted in the RFA interview he does not “favor” a military option, war on North Korea is exactly what Bolton has long indicated he wants. He habitually casts the situation as a pair of extreme dilemmas. For Pyongyang, either give Washington absolutely everything it wants and ask nothing in return—or America attacks. For the U.S., accept that North Korea can and will nuke any American city at any moment—or prepare for a preventive strike. “You have to ask when we’re going to start seriously considering a military option,” he said in representative comments on the subject after a North Korean missile test in November, “because we’re going to come to a binary choice here.”
Bolton is pushing that same binary narrative about the Trump-Kim talks. “I think this session between the two leaders could well be a fairly brief session,” he said in early March, “where Trump says, ‘Tell me you have begun total denuclearization, because we’re not going to have protracted negotiations, you can tell me right now or we’ll start thinking of something else.’” That “something else,” he’d explained in The Wall Street Journal just a few days prior, is a preventive attack.
To be sure, Bolton pretends to be pitching “pre-emptive” war against an “imminent” threat, but his use of the term is disingenuous and incongruous with their well-established meaning in foreign policy. By the very standard he cites for imminence—“the necessity of self-defense [is] instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation”—North Korea unquestionably does not qualify.
An imminent threat would consist of clear evidence Pyongyang is actively preparing to attack the United States. We have no such evidence, nor even credible proof Kim intends to use his weapons for other purposes than their stated and logical aim of deterring Libyan-style regime change. Nuclear capability in North Korea—as in other states, like Russia and China, with whom the U.S. has tense relations—is not the same as intent to strike, and it is beyond reckless to conflate the two.
The reality is the United States is not stuck with a binary choice and must not be browbeaten into thinking we are. A preventive strike on North Korea, as Bolton seeks to provoke by undermining Trump’s talks, is the surest route to a nuclear strike on America. North Korea has said as much. If the U.S. mainland escaped harm, Hawaii, U.S. Pacific territories, and U.S. allies and military bases in South Korea and Japan almost certainly would not. A Kim under attack would be a Kim whose survival mission has failed, and there is every reason to believe he would take millions of innocents down with him. The chaos and suffering would be unthinkable.
Indeed, the “complexity, risks, and costs of a military strike against North Korea are too high,” MIT security studies expert Barry R. Posen recently argued at The New York Times, so a “combination of diplomacy and deterrence, based on the already impressive strength of South Korean and United States conventional and nuclear forces, is a wise alternative.”
The U.S. can, and probably must, learn to live with a nuclear North Korea. For all Bolton’s harangues about deadlines and imminence, Pyongyang has already built nuclear weapons and increasingly reliable delivery technology, and the history of U.S.-orchestrated regime change in non-nuclear states like Libya and Iraq has made denuclearization deeply implausible, at least in the short term. As even neoconservative Max Boot conceded, it “[w]ould have been nice to avert nuclearization,” but now we “can live with a nuclear [North] Korea just as we live with nuclear Russia and China.”
What will make the situation livable is exactly the diplomacy Bolton is trying to undercut. The president must approach Kim not naively, but in good faith, honestly seeking mutually agreeable progress. The point of negotiations is to negotiate, not to provoke.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and weekend editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times,Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.