North Korea unlikely to mourn 'war maniac' Bolton, but US task no easier

People bow before the statues of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, on July 8, 2019.
People bow before the statues of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, on July 8, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Among those unlikely to be mourning Mr John Bolton's departure as United States President Donald Trump's national security adviser are officials in North Korea who have denounced him as a "war maniac" and "human scum" for his attempts to end Pyongyang's nuclear programme.

In the past, Mr Bolton proposed using military force to overthrow the ruling Kim family, and US officials have said Mr Bolton was responsible for the collapse of Mr Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's second summit in Vietnam in February.

Mr Trump announced he had fired Mr Bolton a day after North Korea signalled a new willingness to resume stalled denuclearisation talks with the US, but then conducted the latest in a spate of missile launches.

Policy analysts say Mr Bolton's departure could help US efforts to revive the talks but will not make Washington's aim of persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons any easier.

"The timing could be convenient for US diplomacy with North Korea," said Professor Leif-Eric Easley at Seoul's Ewha University.

"Pyongyang made its disdain for Bolton well known. Kim Jong Un can spin this personnel change in Washington as a win in North Korean domestic politics. That would increase the likelihood of denuclearisation talks restarting soon."

Mr Harry Kazianis, a North Korea expert at Washington's Centre for the National Interest think tank, said Mr Trump was now free to find a national security adviser opposed to wars of regime change and willing to back a diplomatic track with North Korea.

Indeed, Mr Trump's North Korea envoy, Mr Stephen Biegun, a firm advocate of engagement with Pyongyang, is among the names that have been floated as possible successors to Mr Bolton.

 
 
 
 

Mr Bolton has not been the only target of North Korean rhetoric.

North Korea's official media has repeatedly denounced US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and urged Mr Trump to replace him with a "more mature" interlocutor. Last month, it called Mr Pompeo a "diehard toxin" who only complicated talks.

Speaking after Mr Bolton's departure, Mr Pompeo said there were "many times" that they had disagreed, but countries should not expect changes in approach.

"Someone asked, would the policy be different absent any individual being here," Mr Pompeo said to reporters at the White House.

"These have been the President's policies. We give him our best wisdom, we share with him our understanding... but I don't think that any leader around the world should make any assumption that because some one of us departs that President Trump's foreign policy will change in a material way," Mr Pompeo said.

Mr Trump has received plaudits and criticisms for his willingness to engage Mr Kim directly in three meetings since June last year, the first between leaders of two countries that have remained in a technical state of hostilities since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Little progress has been made in getting Mr Kim to give up his weapons programmes, but Mr Trump has repeatedly pointed to North Korea's freeze in nuclear and long-range missile tests since 2017 as evidence of the success of his efforts.

All that nearly fell apart in Hanoi when Mr Trump followed Mr Bolton's advice and handed Mr Kim a piece of paper that bluntly called for the transfer of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and bomb fuel to the US.

The document effectively reprised Mr Bolton's long-held and hard-line "Libya model" of unilateral denuclearisation that North Korea has repeatedly rejected and analysts said would have been seen by Mr Kim as insulting and provocative.

While North Korea has said it is willing to resume talks, Mr Kim has given a year-end deadline for Washington to take a new approach.

Regardless of Mr Bolton's departure, Washington has given no indication that it will soften its demand for North Korea's ultimate denuclearisation, even though with Mr Bolton gone, the risky all-or-nothing gambit is unlikely to be repeated.