Trump’s remarks on Wednesday revealed lingering resentment that, in his view, Bolton had threatened to derail the United States’ historic first summit with Kim last year by taking an unnecessarily provocative position in suggesting that Pyongyang must follow the “Libya model” and relinquish all of its nuclear weapons under any prospective deal.
Trump’s willingness to publicly side with Kim over a recently departed senior aide marked the latest in a string of extraordinary episodes in which he has aligned himself with one of the world’s most brutal dictators against individual Americans, the intelligence community, the military and U.S. allies.
Since the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi in February collapsed without a deal, Trump has sought to rekindle dormant bilateral negotiations by flattering Kim — but also by offering him political cover on a list of provocations that cut against U.S. interests.
This summer alone, the president has:
●Reiterated his belief that joint U.S.-South Korea military drills are “ridiculous and expensive” — this time after receiving a personal letter from Kim complaining about the exercises.
●Declared that the North’s testing of short-range missiles did not violate an agreement with Kim, prompting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to call the tests a clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
●Endorsed, while on a state visit to Tokyo, North Korean state media’s mockery of former vice president Joe Biden as a “fool of low IQ,” saying he agreed.
●Stated that he would not have authorized using Kim’s family members as spies against the regime amid reports that the CIA had cultivated the dictator’s half brother as an intelligence asset. (Kim Jong Nam was assassinated in Malaysia in 2017, at the North Korean leader’s direction, according to South Korea’s spy agency.)
Former U.S. officials said Trump’s approach with Kim fits his pattern of trying to maintain good personal relationships with hostile foreign leaders in hope that it will pay off at the negotiating table. Yet they emphasized that the strategy has not led to breakthroughs on Trump’s biggest foreign policy initiatives, including an effort to secure a trade deal with China.
“It’s his idea that you have to be utterly obsequious with your negotiating partner to suggest you’re a good guy and they should deal with you,” said Christopher Hill, who served as the lead negotiator in the George W. Bush administration during the Six Party Talks with North Korea. “Of course, he’s got very little to show for it. The North Koreans have just pocketed it.”
Although Trump has emphasized that Kim has abided by a private pledge in Singapore to refrain from testing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, experts say the North has improved the accuracy and maneuverability of its short-range arsenal.
And although the president has maintained tough economic sanctions, the Pentagon has significantly scaled down its drills with the South Koreans under Trump’s directives, which defense analysts warned could degrade the allies’ ability to respond to an attack.
Although the Hanoi summit imploded in dramatic failure, with the two leaders breaking off talks before a scheduled lunch, Trump demonstrated almost immediately afterward the lengths to which he was willing to go to placate Kim in service of maintaining their relationship.
At a news conference before leaving the city, Trump was asked whether he had confronted Kim about the death of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died days after being released from 17 months in captivity in North Korea. Trump responded by saying Kim told him “he didn’t know about” Warmbier’s mistreatment.
“I will take him at his word,” he said, adding that Kim “felt very badly about it.”
The response outraged the Warmbier family. In May, Cindy Warmbier, Otto Warmbier’s mother, called Trump’s efforts to negotiate with Kim a “charade” during remarks at a Washington think tank.
“How can you have diplomacy with someone who never tells the truth?” she said then, comparing Kim to Adolf Hitler. Cindy Warmbier declined to comment for this article when reached by phone.
Jean H. Lee, a Korea expert at the Wilson Center, noted that in addition to siding with Kim, Trump has adopted some of the North Korean leader’s subversive language. She pointed to Trump’s reference to U.S.-South Korea drills as “war games,” a term Lee described as pure North Korean propaganda.
“It betrays his lack of understanding on these issues and how easily swayed he is — it’s like North Korea 101,” said Lee, who served as the Associated Press bureau chief in Pyongyang from 2008 to 2013. “He is placing a priority on his personal relationship over what’s best for the United States and the region.”
Lee added that the Kim family has long used a “divide and conquer” strategy, one that has appeared to pay off with Bolton. Pyongyang detested the neocon former Bush aide who had long been opposed to talks and, two months before joining Trump’s White House, made the case in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that a U.S. military first strike on North Korea was legally defensible.
Although Bolton was at the table in Hanoi — where Trump reportedly held a hard line in demanding that Pyongyang relinquish all its nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief — the national security adviser was conspicuously absent when Trump shook hands with Kim at the Korean demilitarized zone in late June. Bolton was instead on a visit to Mongolia, while Trump was joined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and lead negotiator Stephen Biegun, as well as his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, both senior White House advisers.
“It’s convenient that he throws Bolton under the bus completely for the failure,” said Sue Mi Terry, a Korea analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who served as a CIA analyst during the Bush administration.
Terry said that Kim has employed a reciprocal strategy of refraining from direct criticism of Trump because he knows “you need to praise him to make Trump happy.” By contrast, she added, Trump’s flattery of Kim won’t make a difference if the United States won’t offer tangible sanctions relief.
“Trump thinks everybody is that gullible and stupid” to fall for the flattery, Terry said, “because he is the one who craves it.”