US National Security Advisor John Bolton will travel to South Korea later this week for a round of consultations ahead of President Donald Trump’s upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, two administration officials told CNN.
Bolton’s trip comes as top US officials continue to hammer out the details of Trump’s second summit with Kim. From the pageantry of the meeting to the substance of what Trump and Kim might agree to regarding denuclearization there’s much to be worked out.
South Korea is a crucial partner in US diplomacy with North Korea and South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been the biggest proponent of Trump’s continued engagement with Kim.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been the diplomatic lead on the North Korea negotiations in Trump’s Cabinet, even though Bolton has remained closely involved in policy discussions on North Korea. Bolton attended the last Trump-Kim summit in Singapore and was at the table for Trump’s discussions with Kim and other North Korean officials.
When asked about the trip, National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said the NSC had “nothing to announce right now.”
Bolton has long been a skeptic of a diplomatic resolution to North Korea’s nuclear threat and has made clear that Kim has yet to take concrete steps toward denuclearization.
In December, he said the second summit was necessary because Kim hasn’t lived up to commitments he made during the first summit last June.
“They have not lived up to the commitments so far,” Bolton told The Wall Street Journal’s annual CEO Council conference in Washington. “That’s why I think the President thinks that another summit is likely to be productive.”
Trump told reporters this week that he sees “no rush whatsoever” on denuclearization of North Korea. Yet his team is hard at work getting the logistics and diplomacy hammered out ahead of the meetings. The White House has a whole advance team on the ground in Hanoi and on Tuesday Steve Biegun, the State Department’s Special Representative to North Korea, also traveled to the Vietnamese capital for summit preparations.
But Bolton’s pre-summit trip to the region is raising eyebrows.
The National Security Advisor came under fire last year when he referenced the Libya model in discussing the potential way forward with the diplomacy aimed at the denuclearization of North Korea. The comparison set off alarm bells because Libya did give up its nuclear program in 2003, but fewer than 10 years later Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed in a domestic uprising supported by a NATO-led intervention.
When Vice President Mike Pence defended Bolton’s comments – and added that the US-NK talks would only end like the Libya model “if Kim Jong-un doesn’t make a deal” – the North Koreans responded by calling Pence “ignorant and stupid.”
Whether Bolton knowingly sought to enrage the North Koreans with his Libya comments has been a subject of debate, he has been a longtime skeptic of using diplomacy to curtail North Korea’s nuclear production. Those who worked on the Six-Party talks say that Bolton and his staff routinely took steps that ran counter to the Bush administration’s stated goals on North Korea.
“John routinely made fun of the photo of Madeline Albright going to North Korea and raising champagne glasses in 2000,” explains Mark Groombridge, who worked closely with Bolton for years before Bolton joined the Trump administration. “He does not have the zeal for the deal.”
But Bolton has also proven himself a loyal foot soldier.
Some of the President’s past foreign policy advisers – from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to Bolton’s predecessor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster – have slow-walked or sought to thwart Trump decisions they considered rash or unwise, eventually earning Trump’s ire.
While Bolton has privately voiced disagreements with Trump over policy – most recently over the withdrawal of US troops in Syria – he has also quickly fallen into line once Trump makes a decision.
And Bolton has also been cautious not to publicly contradict Trump’s assertions about the pace of progress in the US-North Korea diplomacy.