Bolton’s fault? Think again
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Among U.S. cabinet members, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is probably the most uneasy about his future. Shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump said he would use the military to quell protests across the United States for racial equality, Esper appeared in a TV briefing and directly opposed the idea. Enraged, Trump threatened to dismiss him, but presidential aides persuaded Trump not to do so. A plan to mobilize National Guard troops was scrapped.
In the American system, a member of the administration frequently opposes the president based on his beliefs and the president backs down. It may seem unreal, because 176 lawmakers of the ruling Democratic Party and loyal supporters of President Moon Jae-in all unite to back him no matter what he says.
A memoir by John Bolton, former White House national security advisor, should be seen as a work based on the American system. Some say the memoir is untrustworthy because Bolton has ulterior motives. But we can see a glimpse of facts when we look around the subjective views of the author. We must read this book carefully to learn why Moon’s diplomacy as a mediator is on the brink of failure and why the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi failed. In fact, the Korean government already has an answer.
“Although there was an agreement with Trump, the United States did not have a top-down system,” former lawmaker Park Jie-won quoted Moon telling elder statesmen during a Blue House meeting on June 17 shortly after North Korea demolished the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong. “It is unfortunate that the agreement was not realized due to opposition from Trump’s aides,” said Park.
On April 30, President Moon’s former Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok gave a more detailed account of Trump. “We made efforts to persuade Trump of a possibility that his style would create a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations,” he said. “We should evaluate him highly for trying hard to create something despite enormous oppositions from inside. Trump’s attitude was strong enough for us to have some expectations.”
According to Im, National Security Office Director Chung Eui-yong visited North Korea in March 2018 and flew to the White House to tell U.S. officials that Kim had expressed his intention to denuclearize and attend a North-U.S. summit. “I told you so, right?” Trump repeatedly told his 30 aides during Chung’s briefing, according to Im. He said there was a division of opinion between Trump, who wanted to believe North Korea, and his aides, who did not.
The Blue House thought it could produce a favorable outcome by just persuading Trump. But Trump — no matter how strong his view was and how unique his calculation was — could not win against the aides, who were armed with logic.
Moon’s remarks that the United States was not a top-down system sounds like a confession that he did not know the reality back then. The top-down system might be the most effective way for North Korea, but Moon apparently failed to understand — and even overlooked — the fact that the United States does not function under a top-down system.
According to Bolton’s memoir, not only Bolton, but also Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were all negative about a hasty North-U.S. agreement. It makes us wonder what advice Moon had really received from his aides, who spent years studying in the United States.
What was not described in Bolton’s memoir was what the two Koreas had talked about. There are many things to be unveiled, but North Korea watchers and experts said Pyongyang was enraged that its offer to shut down the Yongbyon nuclear facilities in return for the United States lifting sanctions was rejected by Trump at the Hanoi summit.
Trump tirelessly questioned North Korea’s motives ahead of the summit and calculated his political gains and losses. As a result, he was leaning toward a “no deal” instead of a “bad deal” before attending the Hanoi summit. Im also admitted so. The summit was destined to fail because Kim Jong-un insisted that there would be nothing more to offer.
It is easy to understand why the Hanoi summit failed. In a nutshell, Kim trusted Moon too much, and Moon did not know the United States well enough. Moon might have succeeded in persuading Kim, but Trump was not persuaded by Moon. Just blaming Bolton alone is a critical mistake in understanding the whole picture.