When it comes to controversial selections for national security adviser, there are few more divisive than John Bolton. The former U.N. ambassador's hawkish politics and belittling public statements have made many bitter enemies over his decades in public life.
In August 2003, North Korean state media devoted an entire article to Bolton, personally insulting him by describing him as “human scum and a bloodsucker.” In the same article, a representative of the North Korean Foreign Ministry said Pyongyang would no longer deal with the Bolton, the then-undersecretary of state for arms control and international security — indeed, Bolton did not attend talks with North Korea that took place the next month. Almost 15 years later, it is unclear whether that ban still stands.
The insults did not seem to hurt Bolton. In his 2007 book, “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad,” he wrote that being called “human scum” by North Korea had been “the highest accolade I received during all my service in the Bush years.”
What had he done to incur such personal insults from North Korea?
The context of the time is crucial. By 2003, the relationship between the United States and North Korea had fallen apart, and Washington accused Pyongyang of cheating on the 1994 Agreed Framework — a denuclearization deal reached under the Clinton administration. In his January 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush had included North Korea in his “axis of evil” along with Iraq and Iran.
By the summer of 2003, the United States was already at war with Iraq. Bolton was a vocal advocate of that conflict, and he had spent the previous two years traveling around the world rallying support for U.S. pressure on other countries, including North Korea.
Bolton visited Seoul at the very end of July 2003. There, he delivered a speech titled “A Dictatorship at the Crossroads” and argued the United States would demand a complete rollback of North Korea's nuclear program but offer no concessions in return. During the speech, Bolton personally insulted then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, calling him a “tyrannical dictator” who enjoyed the high life while his citizens suffered deeply, though Bolton later said he did not seek regime change.
“While he lives like royalty in Pyongyang, he keeps hundreds of thousands of his people locked in prison camps with millions more mired in abject poverty, scrounging the ground for food,” Bolton said. “For many in North Korea, life is a hellish nightmare.”
In the speech, Bolton took much of the standard State Department rhetoric about North Korea, but personalized it so it was about Kim. On paper, the shift was subtle but it was sure to provoke a response from Pyongyang. Even some hard-liners who privately supported the thrust of Bolton's comments were taken aback he would do this publicly in South Korea, just as the United States was trying to kick-start multilateral negotiations with North Korea.
Indeed, the very same night Bolton gave this speech, Bush administration officials said North Korea looked to be ready for new six-party negotiations — prompting the State Department to distance itself from Bolton's comments by telling reporters he may not have had up-to-date information.
A few days later, the North's official Korean Central News Agency released its article belittling Bolton. “We know that there are several hawks within the present U.S. administration but have not yet found out such rude human scum as Bolton,” an English-language version of the article read. “What he uttered is no more than rubbish which can be let loose only by a beastly man bereft of reason.”
The article concluded the American diplomat did not speak for the Bush administration and should not be involved in talks. “On the basis of a serious analysis of Bolton’s outcries in the light of his political vulgarity and psychopathological condition as they are quite different from the recent remarks of the U.S. president, we have decided not to consider him as an official of the U.S. administration any longer nor to deal with him,” the article read.
Publicly, Bush backed Bolton and said he would not be barred from upcoming talks. However, when six-party talks resumed the next month, Bolton was not in attendance.
The speech in Seoul and North Korea's angry reaction to it became an issue for Bolton again in 2005 as he tried to secure confirmation for the position of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the speech had been approved by the State Department and then-U. S. Ambassador to South Korea Thomas Hubbard had thanked him for it.
Hubbard disputed this, giving testimony that he had urged Bolton to “tone it down” and that he had only thanked Bolton for the changes he had made to correct some factual errors and other phrases that could be misinterpreted. Bush later installed Bolton as his U.N. ambassador through a recess appointment in 2005, but unable to get Senate confirmation again the next year, Bolton stepped down.
The six-party talks with North Korea continued for a few years, until Pyongyang announced it was pulling out in 2009.
It is unclear how any animosity between Bolton and North Korea from 15 years ago might affect talks this year between Trump and Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea and son of Kim Jong Il. Bolton has not toned down his views of North Korea since 2003: In fact, he downplayed the threat of conflict in his Seoul speech, but he has recently written in defense of the United States striking North Korea.
Meanwhile, North Korea's insults of American officials have not stopped over the years, but in a break with his Oval Office predecessors, Trump seems willing to wage a war of words with Pyongyang, often personalizing his insults to include Kim himself. In doing so, Trump perhaps has put himself on the same page as Bolton. So far at least, this does not appear to have hurt the chances for negotiations with Pyongyang.
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