The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
On Feb. 13, 2007 — four months after North Korea conducted its first nuclear test — North Korea and the United States signed an agreement to exchange heavy oil for a shutdown and disabling of its Yongbyon nuclear facilities and accepting nuclear inspections. Bilateral talks to normalize North Korea-U.S. relations and remove North Korea from a list of terrorism-sponsoring states also began.
At the time, a group led by North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan visited New York to negotiate the normalization of ties. Receiving VIP treatment (and including 15 bodyguards) it chose the Waldorf Hotel — the official residence of John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time — as a negotiation venue. (Bolton led sanctions against North Korea.) In “Failed Diplomacy: The Tragic Story of How North Korea Got the Bomb,” the former U.S. special envoy for North Korean affairs, Charles Pritchard, wrote that the choice of venue was “adding insult to injury for the hard-line element that had for so long dominated North Korea policy.”
After the Republican Party was crushed in a mid-term election due to the negative public opinion about the war in Iraq and a failure to manage the North Korean nuclear crisis, the Democratic Party dominated both the House and Senate. As a result, the Bush administration was pushed to make a denuclearization deal with North Korea. Hard-liners, such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, stepped down, and Bolton gave up the ambassador’s post as the prospect of his reconfirmation was slim in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
The core of the neoconservatives (neocons), who believed the only solution to the North Korean nuclear threat was “regime collapse,” was Bolton. He graduated summa cum laude from Yale University and earned a Juris Doctor degree from Yale Law School. Under Vice President Dick Cheney, Bolton was a neocon fanatic and pro-Israeli Zionist. Having served as undersecretary of state in the first term of the Bush administration — which declared North Korea the worst Stalinist state, part of the axis of evil and an outpost of tyranny — he was the champion of the principle, “No reward for bad behavior.” To his counterpart, Lee Jong-seok, then a senior official on the Blue House National Security Council, Bolton said that the only merit of the liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration was that Washington didn’t need to find out what Korea thought about North Korea. In his moral diplomacy, an ally that was ambiguous toward North Korea was not an ally.
Twelve years later in Hanoi, Vietnam, Kim Kye-gwan is gone and Bolton has returned as the National Security Adviser. It was a prelude to disaster. His attendance was unconfirmed at first, but on Feb. 27, he tweeted there was “much to discuss for two days.” But the “love” between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Trump cast a shadow on Bolton’s presence. As Bolton advocated a Libyan-style denuclearization model, North Korea denounced him as trash. What Kim missed was the resurrection of the hard-line mood in the United States — symbolized by Bolton.
Kim misunderstood the roles of both the White House Security Adviser and the U.S. Secretary of State. Pompeo played the good cop by offering carrots. Bolton played the bad cop with sticks. When contacts were first made for the breakthrough in U.S.-China relations in the early 1970s, Henry Kissinger played the good cop, whereas bad cop Secretary of State William Rogers became a “fool of history.”
Until the day of the meeting, the Korean government was optimistic about inter-Korean economic cooperation. It forgot about Bolton. As the State Department led the negotiations, Blue House Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong, Bolton’s counterpart, maintained a low profile. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Lee Do-hoon came forward, but the rupture was unexpected. For 260 days from Singapore to Hanoi, it was reported in the United States that North Korea had produced nuclear material for eight nuclear warheads. Dissolving the 70-year-long Cold War system is urgently needed. Yet, as always, nervousness of appeasing Kim Jong-un hovers.
Only one of the two options will remain: either Bolton and the other hard-liners will disappear or Kim Jong-un will pursue complete denuclearization. Bolton seems to have succeeded in revenge in Hanoi: his motto is, “Surrender is not an option.”
JoongAng Ilbo, March 5, Page 31