Bolton made no mention of the mounting scandal in his first public remarks since leaving the administration. But he delivered a forceful performance that left no ambiguity that he believes Trump is pursuing a losing strategy on North Korea.
At the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Bolton warned that leader Kim Jong Un has no intention of relinquishing his nuclear weapons, despite three meetings with Trump over the past 15 months. And he argued that U.S. economic sanctions are not being effectively enforced and suggested that he thinks the United States should consider pursuing regime change in Pyongyang or a military first strike against Kim’s arsenal.
North Korea “has not made a strategic decision to give up their nuclear weapons. I think the contrary is true,” Bolton said. “The strategic decision Kim Jong Un has made is to do whatever he can to keep nuclear weapons capability and development.”
His remarks came as the White House lashed out at the deepening House probe of Trump’s call with Ukranian President Volodymr Zelensky in July, during which Trump asked him to conduct an investigation into presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden. It is unclear whether Bolton was aware of the details of the call during his time as national security adviser.
White House officials declined to comment on Bolton’s North Korea remarks, noting that he did not criticize Trump by name.
Former U.S. government officials had mixed reactions to Bolton’s willingness to speak out so pointedly just weeks after leaving the administration. After Bolton was forced out in early September, Trump ripped his former aide, saying he did not blame Kim for wanting “nothing to do” with him. Bolton had consistently held a hard line on the talks with the North, demanding that the Kim regime relinquish its full nuclear weapons arsenal before any U.S. sanctions were lifted.
Christopher R. Hill, who served as the lead U.S. negotiator during the six-party talks with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration, has criticized Trump’s strategy. But he said Bolton, who had a stormy and short-lived tenure in the State Department during the Bush years, has a history of being “totally disrespectful” after leaving public office.
“I think what we see from John Bolton today is what we’ve seen from him in the past, and that is that he simply does not understand he is not working for himself,” Hill said.
Hill said that Trump’s personal summitry with Kim resembles a “global reality TV show.” But he added: “I don’t think John Bolton should be the one sounding the alarm. He should show decent respect for people who took a chance on him and maybe give them some more time.”
Others said Bolton was within his rights to warn the public about the inherent risks of negotiating with North Korea, given his proximity to Trump’s diplomatic efforts.
“I didn’t hear him say the word ‘Trump,’ ” said Richard Armitage, who served as deputy secretary of state in the Bush administration and participated in a different panel at the CSIS event. “By all accounts, he fought to have a more sensible policy [on North Korea]. John Bolton realizes — like everyone except Donald Trump and [South Korean President] Moon Jae-in — that Kim Jong Un has no intention of denuclearizing.”
Organizers of the CSIS event, which was co-sponsored by the JoongAng Il-bo, a South Korean newspaper, said they asked Bolton to participate shortly after he left the Trump administration.
Bolton was paid a fee — negotiated by his representatives at the Washington Speakers Bureau — that was in the tens of thousands of dollars, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private negotiations. Victor Cha, a former Bush administration official who runs the CSIS’s Korea Chair, declined to comment, and a message left with the Washington Speakers Bureau was not returned.
Bolton had offered direct criticisms of Trump’s policies on Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea during a private event at the Gatestone Institute two weeks ago, according to Politico. He has also participated in an interview for a magazine article that has yet to be published, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
However, Bolton has told associates that he is saving his juiciest material for a book on his time in the Trump White House, two people familiar with his plans said.
Though there was some trepidation within the State Department before Bolton’s CSIS appearance, one U.S. official dismissed his performance as a recitation of well-known positions that are out of step with the public’s desire to reduce tensions with North Korea.
“Everyone knows his position on the issue,” the official said.
Trump has touted the North’s nearly two-year moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles as a sign of the Kim regime’s good-faith negotiations. But Bolton made clear at the CSIS that he believes Pyongyang’s multiple tests of short-range missiles over the summer violated long-standing U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The moratorium on nuclear testing “tells us nothing about North Korea’s intentions or strategy,” he added.
The North will “never give up enough voluntarily, for me,” Bolton said, noting that it would require Kim to agree to an “inspection system so robust and thorough they may well think it threatens the viability of their regime.”
Though Bolton had accompanied Trump to two summit meetings with Kim, including the second, in Hanoi in February, which collapsed without a deal, he was noticeably absent from Trump’s handshake with Kim in the Korean demilitarized zone in June. That meeting was aimed at restarting nuclear talks, but no lower-level negotiations have taken place since then, despite Pyongyang stating it was open to restarting dialogue this month.
In his CSIS remarks, Bolton was careful not to stray into personal attacks on the president. But he excoriated Trump for not calling North Korea’s short-range missile tests a direct violation of U.N. resolutions.
“North Korea today, as we speak, is violating resolutions,” Bolton said. “When the United States is the one having led the fight to get those resolutions, and you say you really don’t care, other countries can draw the conclusion that they really don’t care about the sanctions contained in those resolutions.”
Sue Mi Terry, a former Korea analyst at the CIA during the Bush administration, said she was struck by how little Bolton’s position on North Korea changed during his time in the White House.
“It was surprising to me that after meeting with Kim and dealing with diplomacy, his views are exactly the same,” she said.
John Hudson contributed to this report.