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North Korea and Bolton’s Alarming RFA Interview

John Bolton gave an interview last week to Radio Free Asia about North Korea, and what he said bodes very ill for the prospects of successful diplomacy:

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 [bold mine-DL]. 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 [bold mine-DL]. 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.

North Korea probably isn’t going to agree to denuclearization in any case, and it certainly isn’t going to do it in exchange for no concessions and then ceasing to exist as its own state. Bolton envisions the meeting between Kim and Trump as North Korea’s chance to agree to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, and if they don’t do that he thinks “it could actually be a very short meeting.” He says elsewhere in the interview that he thinks North Korea should commit to hand over its nuclear weapons, and incredibly he uses Libya of all states as a model for how to proceed:

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 [sic]. 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.

North Korean officials often cite the 2011 intervention to support Gaddafi’s overthrow as one of the reasons why they want to have nuclear weapons. They see what happened to the regimes that agreed to dismantle their programs and they don’t want to follow them into oblivion. Citing Libya as the model to follow just confirms the worst fears of the other side, and it is guaranteed to make them cling to their weapons even tighter than before.

It’s clear that Bolton has no interest in striking any compromise with North Korea, and so we have to assume that he will do whatever he can to set up the summit to fail. The insistence on denuclearization without offering anything in return is not just an obvious non-starter, but it will also likely be received as an insult. Bolton disingenuously claims not to support military action against North Korea, but this isn’t credible when he writes lengthy (and dishonest) arguments in support of doing just that. His final comment sums up the false choice that hard-liners always offer:

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 [bold mine-DL].

It may be undesirable for North Korea to have nuclear weapons, but it isn’t more dangerous than launching a war to try to eliminate those weapons. We know that because North Korea already has these weapons and will use them if it thinks it has nothing left to lose. The truly perverse thing about preventive war in this case is that it makes the nuclear war it is supposedly trying to “prevent” more likely to happen. Bolton isn’t offering North Korea a way out that it can realistically take. He is telling them that they have to surrender their nukes and cease to exist or else they will be destroyed. We already know what their answer will be, because it is the same answer that any government would give when presented with such an absurd ultimatum. The only reason to present an adversary with such a horrible choice is to make war more likely.

Bolton’s position on North Korea is so extreme and unreasonable that diplomacy with North Korea is doomed to fail if Trump does as his new National Security Advisor recommends.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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