Ousted National Security Adviser Bolton Slams Trump's Approach To North Korea

Sep 30, 2019
Originally published on September 30, 2019 4:50 pm

It's no secret that former national security adviser John Bolton did not see eye to eye with President Trump on a whole range of subjects.

But in his first public remarks since his ouster earlier this month, Bolton made clear just how deeply disconnected he was from his former boss on how to handle North Korea.

In a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Bolton outlined a vision for addressing North Korea's nuclear program that was completely at odds with the White House position on Pyongyang.

"Every day that goes by makes North Korea a more dangerous country," Bolton said. "You don't like their behavior today, what do you think it will be when they have nuclear weapons that can be delivered to American cities?"

After exchanging escalating threats with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, during the first year of his presidency, Trump held a historic face-to-face meeting with Kim last year in Singapore.

That summit ended with a vague agreement to support the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Since then, despite two more in-person meetings between Kim and Trump, there hasn't been much progress toward actually dismantling North Korea's nuclear program or even agreeing what that might entail.

While not calling out Trump directly, Bolton said the focus on holding summits with Kim is misplaced. He said the U.S. needs to be more concerned about ending the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.

"It seems to be clear that the DPRK has not made a strategic decision to give up its nuclear weapons," Bolton declared at the start of his remarks. "In fact, I think the contrary is true. I think the strategic decision that Kim Jong Un is operating through is he will do whatever he can to keep a deliverable nuclear weapons capability."

Bolton is known for his hawkish views and almost always seemed an odd fit for the Trump administration, since Trump campaigned on getting the U.S. out of long-lasting wars abroad.

Bolton's policy disagreements seemed to lessen his role in the administration even before he was pushed out. Bolton was conspicuously absent during Trump's last meeting with Kim in the DMZ.

Trump has argued that his interactions with Kim have helped to prevent a devastating war. He repeatedly praises Kim, saying they have a great relationship and that he is optimistic about a deal between the U.S. and North Korea.

Trump has also downplayed North Korea's recent short-range-missile launches.

During his remarks, Bolton urged the U.S. government to think about the possibility of pushing for regime change in North Korea, a position the White House has publicly rejected.

He also said the U.S. should consider working with China toward the reunification of the Korean Peninsula, with a freely elected government.

But ultimately, Bolton said, if these other options fail, the U.S. will have no choice but to go another route.

"If you believe ... that it is unacceptable for North Korea to have nuclear weapons, at some point military force has to be an option," Bolton said.

Bolton's positions have also not endeared him to the North Korean government, which repeatedly insulted him during his time at the Trump White House.

"I'm also sure that the leadership of North Korea is delighted that I'm here today in a private capacity," Bolton quipped.

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Today, John Bolton delivered his first public remarks since he was ousted from the White House earlier this month. The president's former national security adviser had sharp words about the administration's approach to North Korea. Trump has argued the U.S. is making progress. But Bolton warned...


JOHN BOLTON: Every day that goes by makes North Korea a more dangerous country. You don't like their behavior today? What do you think it'll be when they have nuclear weapons that can be delivered to American cities?

KELLY: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe was at that speech from John Bolton. She is with us now. And Ayesha, give us a fuller picture of what he had to say about North Korea.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: He essentially said he doesn't think North Korea has made the decision to give up its nuclear weapons, and he doesn't think that will happen voluntarily. He had this to say at the beginning of his remarks.


BOLTON: In fact, I think the contrary is true. I think the strategic decision that Kim Jong Un is operating through is that he will do whatever he can to keep a deliverable nuclear weapons capability.

RASCOE: This is key because President Trump is essentially saying the opposite. Trump has publicly praised North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, and said that he thinks Kim does want to make a change. Bolton says there's been too much focus on summits and face-to-face meetings and not enough on the threat that this country poses.

He urged the U.S. government to think about pushing for regime change. He also said military action must be on the table if having a nuclear-armed North Korea is unacceptable. He said that's controversial, but he argued that the alternative could be worse.

KELLY: Although Ayesha, we knew John Bolton is a hawk. We knew he left because of policy disputes with President Trump. So was today's speech that much of a surprise?

RASCOE: It wasn't surprising that Bolton felt this way, but it was striking because this is a person who, just a few weeks ago, was one of the top officials executing foreign policy for the U.S. And when you listen to the speech, it's not like he and Trump just weren't on the same page, they weren't even reading the same book. So it raises questions how this administration was operating, and it maybe speaks to why, at times, the messages have been so divergent coming from the White House.

KELLY: And what about negotiations? With Bolton out now, where do things actually stand between the U.S. and North Korea?

RASCOE: So there still hasn't been much concrete progress toward denuclearization at this point - or even really deciding what that might entail. There's been talk of starting working-level negotiations again and even the possibility of another summit. But Trump has said that he wants to see what both sides can accomplish together at these lower-level talks before there's another face-to-face. You know, back in February, there was a meeting in Hanoi that did not go well. Trump ended up walking away without a deal, and experts are saying that just can't happen again. They have to be able to reach some type of deal if they actually have another big summit like before.

KELLY: What about Ukraine and this whole whistleblower complaint? Did that come up at all, Ayesha? Because he was still national security adviser in July when Trump made that call to the president of Ukraine.

RASCOE: Yeah, it didn't come up today. But Bolton's comments have made clear that he doesn't have a problem speaking out against the administration if there's something that he doesn't agree with. And that makes him different from some of the other officials who have left the administration. Bolton right now seems chatty. And so that could be an issue for this administration going forward because there have been reports that Bolton opposed Trump's decision to withhold aid from Ukraine.

KELLY: We shall watch this space and see what else he has to say. That's NPR's Ayesha Rascoe reporting from the White House. Thank you.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.