“Kim’s repression of his people, terrorist activities, and pursuit of WMD’s all warrant the fullest scrutiny. We should take the lead, not obstruct other nations,” Bolton wrote in a tweet, marking the second time he has publicly criticized Trump’s North Korea strategy since he was forced out of the White House in September.
The administration’s decision — which also drew condemnation from leading Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and former U.N. ambassador Samantha Power — came after North Korea’s U.N. representative had warned that a human rights meeting would be viewed by Pyongyang as “another serious provocation,” the latest in a series of North Korean threats in recent weeks.
“Trump again coddled a dictator — blocking a UN meeting on North Korea human rights, betraying our values,” Biden wrote on Twitter. “Trump continues to side with the brutal Kim Jong Un.”
The State Department said the United States is seeking an alternative meeting at the United Nations this week that would offer a comprehensive update on North Korea’s recent missile launches and provocative behavior.
“We feel that that’s the best use of the Security Council attention this week,” a senior Trump administration official said during a conference call to announce financial sanctions on individuals in other countries, including Myanmar, Pakistan and South Sudan, to mark International Human Rights Day.
A White House official declined to comment.
The move was widely interpreted as an effort to placate Pyongyang, which has ramped up hostile rhetoric in recent weeks — calling Trump a “heedless and erratic old man” — and suggested the United States would receive an unwelcome “Christmas gift” if there is no breakthrough by the end of the month. Over the weekend, Pyongyang announced it had conducted a “very important test” at a long-range rocket launch site.
Trump has played down tensions, tweeting on Sunday that Kim is “too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way” and reiterating that the regime must commit to denuclearization.
But U.S.-North Korea talks have been dormant since a working-level meeting in October in Stockholm ended with North’s top negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, pronouncing his side “very displeased” because the dialogue had “not fulfilled our expectations.”
Analysts said Trump is in a difficult position after having invested so much personal attention in his unprecedented diplomatic gambit with the North, which has included three meetings with Kim Jong Un. As he heads into an election year, Trump has been eager to present his North Korea policy as a win, touting Pyongyang’s two-year moratorium on tests of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles — even though the North has conducted 13 short-range missile tests since May.
“I think the chances of any meaningful dialogue are rapidly diminishing — if not over — so the big challenge is when to pivot back to sort of the traditional approach of dealing with North Korea, which is a combination of pressure and diplomacy,” said Joel Wit, a former State Department official who was involved in negotiations with the North during the Clinton administration.
Wit, now a senior fellow at the Stimson Center and director of 38 North, a website focused on North Korea policy, said Trump and his team “still want to play this out to the end, and they have the idea that diplomacy still may be salvaged. Is it worth starting to pivot now because of an upcoming human rights meeting or picking another opportunity?”
But the administration’s U.N. moves marked the second time in less than a month that it had moved to placate North Korea. In November, the Defense Department postponed a joint U.S.-South Korea military exercise that had drawn Pyongyang’s ire, and Trump tweeted that Kim should “act quickly, get the deal done,” suggesting another leaders’ summit was possible.
Pyongyang, however, rejected the possibility of another meeting. In brief remarks last week at the Korea Foundation, Stephen Biegun, the State Department’s lead North Korea negotiator, acknowledged that “we have not made as much progress as we would have hoped at this point.” He emphasized, however, that the administration “will not give up on what we’re doing.”
Human rights activists were blindsided by the Trump administration’s opposition to the U.N. meeting. In a landmark 2014 report, a U.N. commission found that the North Korean regime committed “unspeakable atrocities” against its own people on a vast scale. A separate assessment in 2017 from the International Bar Association War Crimes Committee concluded that Kim should be prosecuted for 10 separate crimes against humanity.
As recently as Friday, some Trump administration officials were signaling support for the U.N. meeting, “with the caveat that the White House might change its mind,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
“We’re giving in a bit to the pressure exerted by Kim Jong Un,” Scarlatoiu said. Amid the growing threats from North Korea, he said, “the administration is probably quite apprehensive that something big might happen — something big that might terminate any hope for progress in talks with North Korea — and, of course, they fear that human rights might tip the balance.”
Bolton, hawkish on North Korea since his days in President George W. Bush’s State Department, had been skeptical of Trump’s North Korea diplomacy from the start, and Pyongyang viewed him as an impediment to making a deal. His ouster in September, amid growing distance from Trump on issues that also included Afghanistan, Iran and Venezuela, was viewed as a signal to North Korea that the president was hoping to push the nuclear talks forward.
Bolton resisted testifying in the House impeachment hearings on Trump, saying he would do so only if instructed by a court ruling. However, he has spoken out on North Korea, eviscerating Trump’s policies during an address at a Washington think tank in September and declaring the Kim regime has no intention of relinquishing its nuclear arsenal.
Most analysts have said the window for a diplomatic breakthrough appears closed. But Victor Cha, a top Asia policy official in the Bush administration, said he believes a small deal remains possible in which Trump agrees to lift some economic sanctions in exchange for initial steps to limit the North’s nuclear program.
“Trump wants it really badly,” Cha said, citing the president’s desire to tout a win in his reelection campaign. “I just would not rule it out.”