By Van Jackson
Aug 5, 2020
Even self-serving interpretations of history can be useful. Ambassador
John Bolton's recent memoir, "The Room Where It Happened," offers something
counterintuitively useful to those who wish for progress in nuclear
negotiations with North Korea. As Trump's former national security adviser,
Bolton confesses with self-satisfaction that he helped sabotage nuclear
negotiations with North Korea at multiple points.
In Bolton's mind, though, sabotage was a kind of success. He holds a peculiar set of beliefs about North Korea that depend on a selective reading of history and a feeble understanding of Seoul's neighbor to the North. These beliefs, which are widely held in Washington, help us understand how the U.S.' North Korea policy has persisted over decades despite repeated failures.
Myth 1: Action for action benefits North Korea
According to Bolton, "Action for action … inevitably worked to benefit North Korea (or any proliferator) by front-loading economic benefits to the North but dragging out dismantling the nuclear program into the indefinite future." Bolton used this prejudice against action-for-action to justify demanding total elimination of North Korea's nuclear warheads upfront. In effect, he sought a grand bargain aimed at rapid unilateral disarmament rather than gradual nuclear rollback.
But neither action-for-action nor a grand bargain is capable of realizing denuclearization directly. The crucial task is to situate a process of action-for-action only after initiating a process of rivalry reversal. Ample political science research finds that the stronger party in a rivalry must make substantial unilateral accommodations before expecting reciprocity to deliver results. This means the United States needs a strategy of rivalry termination. Without it, there is no realistic strategy of denuclearization.
Myth 2: Negotiations will drive a wedge between South Korea and US
In preparations for the first Trump-Kim summit, Bolton "told Trump that we needed the closest possible coordination with Moon Jae-in to avoid North Korea's engineering a split between Washington and Seoul. I wanted to preserve U.S.―South Korean alignment." This is a classic worry in Washington. No rational American policymaker wants to deal with North Korea in a manner that will strain its alliances if avoidable.
With a progressive president occupying the Blue House though, and a majority in the National Assembly from the same party as the President, the risk of an intra-alliance wedge arises not from negotiating with North Korea but rather from failing to. In this context, nothing could be more reassuring than the United States negotiating in good faith to reduce dangers on the Korean Peninsula.
Myth 3: Ending the Korean War is a dangerous concession.
At multiple points in the book, Bolton mentions that declaring an end to the Korean War would harm the U.S. interests: "I stressed my view that neither sanctions relief nor an end of the Korea War declaration should come until complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization was concluded …" He says he first feared this would happen during President Obama's tenure, referring to it as a "dangerous concession." He subsequently worried North Korea would manipulate Trump into such a declaration.
To prevent this, Bolton plotted with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about "what to extract from North Korea in return for an end of war communique, including perhaps a baseline declaration of their nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs." Bolton said he "doubted the North would agree, or agree on any of our other ideas, but it might at least prevent a gratuitous U.S. concession ending the Korean War."
It is true that ending the Korean War ends a historical rationale for U.S. troop presence in South Korea. But ending the Korean War, if done as part of a larger sequence of moves ― which would include forsaking the goal of denuclearization in favor of arms control and some form of sanctions relief ― is a step toward undoing the rivalry that makes a North Korean attack possible in the first place.
Bolton uses his memoir to convince the reader, among other things, of his deeply cynical and selective view of North Korea ― a view that necessitates the kinds of U.S. policies that have made the Korean Peninsula less secure for decades. But amid the gossip and fear-mongering, Bolton helps the reader construct the mental map of a foreign policy hawk who actively sabotaged negotiations with North Korea. Now that we have the map to his mind, we stand a better chance of reverse engineering the ongoing failures that resulted from it.
Van Jackson, Ph.D., is a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, a senior fellow at the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.