Former national security adviser John Bolton's memoir of his time in the White House, "The Room Where It Happened," has been widely picked over for its accounts of palace intrigue, its confirmation of the actions that led to the president's impeachment, and Bolton's concerns that the Democrats actually rushed to impeach on too few charges.
But, overlooked amid the gossip and the Monday morning quarterbacking — and ironic, given Bolton’s disdain for diplomacy with North Korea — is that Bolton's book presages a path to a potential “October surprise” deal with the rogue nation to burnish President Donald Trump's self-professed deal-making skills ahead of the November elections.
In his recollection of the February 2019 Hanoi summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Trump, Bolton said he was pleased that Trump had internalized the point that sanctions on North Korea had given him leverage over Kim, and therefore he should not give them up unless Kim were to give up all nuclear weapons. Trump, Bolton wrote, surmised that it would be better — and better theater — to walk away from the summit empty-handed rather than to give up the sanctions. (Bolton specified that Trump called on his dating experience to determine that it is better to be the “dumper” rather than the “dumpee.”)
But at the 11th hour, Trump raised the idea with Kim of reducing a percentage — rather than all — of the U.S. sanctions again North Korea in return for Kim’s proffered denuclearization freeze at Nyongbyon, the oldest of North Korea’s nuclear facilities. Bolton describes this moment as “beyond doubt the worst moment of the meeting. If Kim Jong Un had said yes there, they might have had a deal, disastrously for America.”
Bolton obviously opposed such a compromise and was relieved to no end that the North Korean leader did not accept the offer.
Times, however, change: Bolton is no longer in the White House to obstruct such a deal, while Kim's nation is in the midst of an economic free fall because of both U.N. and U.S. economic sanctions, as well as the self-imposed quarantine with China, its primary economy benefactor, over COVID-19. We can expect North Korea to ramp up provocations prior to the November elections in the U.S. (a time-honored North Korea tactic dating back decades).
But behind his rhetoric and scare tactics, Kim may become more willing to take a sanctions reduction, rather than hold out for their elimination, in the months ahead. And Trump, starving for a distraction from a potential second wave of peaking COVID-19 numbers, may also see an opportunity to benefit politically from a dramatic October deal on denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.
He would then be able to claim a big foreign policy victory, demand the Nobel Peace Prize — for which South Korean President Moon Jae-in promised to nominate Trump, according to Bolton — and pose for the television cameras.
Bolton, among others, would be shaking his head in disgust if that happened.
Bolton’s hawkish views on North Korea should come as no surprise: His opinions have been known for years, at least since the George W. Bush administration when he was undersecretary for arms control and then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. I encountered them often while I was on Bush's National Security Council staff and served as the U.S deputy head of delegation at the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program, which began in 2003. And Bolton’s time spent observing Trump and Kim’s “bromance” has not changed those long-held views, which are that North Korea will not give up its weapons, diplomacy is a waste of time, and the U.S. must act sooner rather than later to stop the regime.
Bolton’s deep frustration at Trump’s apparent view that a deal on denuclearization should or could be subject to domestic political considerations should distress anyone. At the 2019 summit in Hanoi, for instance, Bolton relays that Trump’s decision to walk away from a deal rather than reach a compromise was in part driven by his assessment that a failed summit would be a big media story and divert attention from the congressional testimony of his former lawyer Michael Cohen.
Trump also reportedly said to Bolton that he doesn’t know why the U.S. fought in the Korean War or why we still have troops stationed in South Korea, and that he wouldn’t “pay 10 cents” for joint exercises with the South Korea military. That last one, in particular, reflects a total lack of understanding about how to maintain defense readiness on the peninsula, which has been core to maintaining peace and prosperity in South Korea over the last several decades.
Further, in Bolton's retelling, Trump is prone to ignoring the decided interests of America's allies in his bilateral negotiations with Kim. For instance, after two summit meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (and numerous briefings by NSC staff) about the importance of seeking concessions from North Korea on all ranges of its ballistic missiles, Trump turned around and only asked Kim about limiting the long-range missiles that can reach the U.S., not the ones that can hit Japan or Korea. Selling out our allies to North Korean ballistic missile threats would not constitute true denuclearization, nor would it represent a strong united posture against China's rise in the region — and neither is exactly the record of a would-be Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Sadly, although peace — and denuclearization — on the Korean Peninsula is important to America's long-term interests in the region, the only party nowadays that seems to truly care about either is South Korea. Prior to the Hanoi summit, South Korea's Moon stressed to both Trump and Kim that a peace declaration, officially ending the Korean War, would be a mutually desirable deliverable of the negotiations. However, when negotiators met, neither side saw it as valued by the other and both of dropped it as a negotiating chip.
But with the president racking up loss after loss on the political stage this summer, it might finally represent a tangible "deal" that Trump the dealmaker could show Americans as evidence of his power just before October — especially as sanctions on North Korea hardly rank high on Americans' top concerns at the moment. Bolton is neither an advocate of the idea nor a starry-eyed optimist; he does, however, seem to recognize that the president cares more about re-election than anything else, and that sort of cynicism might well serve us well to notice.