John Bolton is not particularly concerned about receiving a present from North Korea this holiday season.
In an exclusive interview with NPR, the former U.S. ambassador dismissed the country's recent threat that it could deliver a "Christmas gift" if the U.S. does not meet an end-of-year deadline to offer better terms in nuclear negotiations. Bolton, who has avoided interviews since President Trump fired him as national security adviser in September, instead suggested that the Trump administration take the threat with a "grain of salt."
"I think part of this may be bluff on their part. They think the president's desperate for a deal, and if they put an artificial time constraint on it, they may think they're going to get a better deal. We'll just have to wait and see," he said.
"But this is all part of the North Korean playbook. They've successfully jived the three prior American administrations, and they plan to do the same with this one."
And he thinks the administration is making a "big mistake" if — as reported by The New York Times — it stymied attempts by the United Nations Security Council to hold a discussion on North Korea's human rights abuses, for fear of upsetting North Korea and thereby derailing nuclear negotiations.
"It's been the pattern as we've watched it for over three decades now: The North Koreans are very happy to declare that they're going to give up their nuclear weapons program, particularly when it's in exchange for tangible economic benefits, but they never get around to doing it," said Bolton.
"And I think the inescapable conclusion is that they're happy to sell that same bridge over and over again, but there's no serious chance they will ever voluntarily give it up."
Bolton's comments represent a stark break — but not a surprising one — with the administration he served before his ouster three months ago. The foreign policy hawk and the president had butted heads repeatedly over the direction of the administration's national security policy.
Now, Bolton has found himself at the center of the political maelstrom over the impeachment of the president, with Democratic lawmakers seeking — and so far failing — to obtain his testimony about Trump's decision to withhold U.S. military aid to Ukraine.
As for their differences on North Korea, Trump has actively pursued a deal with the nuclear state throughout much of his time in office — though that diplomatic pursuit has fallen on tough times lately.
The promise of talks and a landmark agreement, seemingly so close when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met Trump for the first time last year, has devolved into an exchange of bellicose rhetoric.
How did we get here?
A good place to start is a more hopeful moment, during one of Trump's subsequent meetings with Kim, in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February. Despite a hopeful start, they did not reach an agreement to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program. "Sometimes you have to walk," Trump explained then, "and this was just one of those times."
The decision to walk started a chain of events featuring increasingly hostile rhetoric. Jenny Town, who follows North Korea for 38 North, took note of a speech Kim delivered to the country's People's Assembly in April.
"Kim Jong Un basically said that he would give the U.S. until the end of the year for the U.S. and North Korea to make progress and to come to some kind of agreement on how they move forward," she told NPR. "I think this was a sign of frustration with the process."
It was that deadline that a North Korean official was referring to in his "Christmas gift" threat. And that deadline has become a time bomb of sorts.
"They're going to have to do something now," Town explained.
Negotiators from the U.S. and North Korea have met in recent months, but they have made no progress. A U.S. official familiar with the talks describes North Korean negotiators as "professional" but "afraid." For their own safety, they want Kim to decide on any deal North Korea makes, but he's not in the room.
Now, the holiday deadline approaches, and satellite images suggest that North Korea has been firing off rocket engines as if preparing for some kind of long-range-missile test. Is it possible, then, that North Korea is on its way to some dramatic nuclear confrontation by mistake?
"The key is 'by mistake' — we have a situation now where it's unclear if there are red lines or what those red lines would be," Town said.
Ever since Trump began meeting and exchanging letters with Kim, North Korea has refrained from nuclear and long-range-missile tests. Nobody knows what Trump would do if North Korea resumes.
The U.S. is doing one thing as the deadline nears, according to an official: trying to deliver a "constant message" of "reassurance" to Kim.
Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, sounded a note of disappointment during a U.N. Security Council session on North Korea's threat earlier this month, observing that the country "has continued to advance its prohibited programs."
But she also portrayed U.S. negotatiors' conditions as reasonable.
"We have not asked North Korea to do everything before we do anything," Craft said.
As for what that statement means, Joseph Yun, a former State Department negotiator, explains that the U.S. used to emphasize that North Korea must start any deal by giving up its entire program.
"All of that must happen before the U.S. will begin to normalize relations," Yun said. "In other words: 'You guys, you go first and then we make sure what you've done is acceptable. And then we will do our end.' "
In various statements this year, the U.S. has said something a little different. It still wants a halt to all of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but the two sides might take smaller steps first.
"What Ambassador Craft is saying is that, no, it's not completely the case that North Koreans have to do everything before the U.S. does any reciprocal steps," he said. "We could do what's called 'step-by-step' or 'incremental' measures, as it's sometimes called."
A U.S. official says that American negotiators are willing to discuss early measures. Maybe each country could put a liaison office in the other's capital, for instance, since neither has an embassy in the other right now.
But what North Korea really wants is relief from global economic sanctions without giving up all its weapons, and its deadline is nearing.
That threat could challenge the unpredictable U.S. president, just as Trump begins an election year. In other words, as Town warned: "There's a lot of room for miscalculation right now."
For his part, Bolton noted that whatever impression North Korean officials have given with their approaching deadline, he believes time remains on Pyongyang's side.
"The more time they have, the more they can overcome all the technological and scientific difficulties to perfecting a deliverable nuclear weapons capability," he said.
"So the fact that they're not doing anything today and they didn't do anything yesterday, that we can see, is not a good sign. It probably just means we're not seeing it. But the longer time goes on, the greater their capability will become."
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Ambassador John Bolton is re-entering the public debate with a talk here on NPR. Since the president fired his national security adviser in September, Bolton has largely avoided the media. He also did not talk with House impeachment investigators. They heard much testimony about Bolton but nothing from him. He says courts should decide if an adviser like him should testify. Bolton also has not discussed the policy differences that led President Trump to fire the veteran diplomat in a tweet. But in recent weeks, Bolton regained control of the Twitter account he used while in the White House, and he posted what sounded like a criticism of President Trump's approach to North Korea. The U.S. blocked its allies' efforts to examine North Korea's human rights abuses at the United Nations, and Bolton tweeted that the U.S. should be mobilizing its friends against North Korea and should not obstruct them. So we called Ambassador Bolton to ask what was on his mind. He came to the phone for an exclusive interview.
I actually want to begin with your tweet on December 10. Were you referring to canceling a U.N. human rights session on North Korea?
JOHN BOLTON: Yes, there was a lot of talk about whether the United States should go forward with that, should accept it - it was suggested by a number of our European allies. I thought it was an excellent point to talk about. I think whenever the Europeans get interested in the North Korean situation, that's to our advantage - I think it's useful to remind them that many of the same complaints could be made about Iran. And I think it's also fine to talk about the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But the idea, at least as reported in the press, that the United States opposed a session on North Korean human rights for fear of offending Kim Jong Un would have been a big mistake.
INSKEEP: Well, that seems to be what has happened. How much did the United States damage itself?
BOLTON: Well, I don't think you damage yourself by telling the truth about a country, and I think it's emblematic of regimes like North Korea and Iran that not only are they rogue states seeking deliverable nuclear weapons, but they're also state sponsors of terrorism and, on the side, repress their own population. I mean, I think there are characteristics about these regimes that tell us a lot about the way they behave.
INSKEEP: Ambassador, is it possible to get a North Korea nuclear deal that is worth having at all?
BOLTON: I don't believe so because I don't think North Korea will ever voluntarily give up nuclear weapons. It's been the pattern as we've watched it for over three decades now. The North Koreans are very happy to declare that they're going to give up their nuclear weapons program, particularly when it's in exchange for tangible economic benefits, but they never get around to doing it. And I think the inescapable conclusion is they're happy to sell that same bridge over and over again, but there's no serious chance they will ever voluntarily give it up.
INSKEEP: Is it a mistake for the United States to keep trying, given that countries like China and Russia, North Korea's friends, demand some kind of diplomatic process to keep up economic sanctions?
BOLTON: Well, you know, if they don't want to keep the economic sanctions up, which are, after all, part of U.N. Security Council resolutions, they being permanent members of the Security Council, then I think that tells them something about them as well. The condition should be that North Korea doesn't develop weapons of mass destruction, and I include in there chemical and biological as well as nuclear weapons. The Chinese, for example, say they are opposed to a North Korean nuclear weapon because it will destabilize East Asia and impair their economic development. Well, taking the Chinese at their word, they should want to enforce the sanctions for their own safety.
INSKEEP: You would hope so. But, of course, they're urging that the sanctions be eased at this time. Is it a mistake for the United States to keep trying for some kind of deal?
BOLTON: Well, I take everything that North Korea says with a big grain of salt. There may or may not be some development toward the end of the year. I think part of this may be bluff on their part. They think the president's desperate for a deal, and if they put an artificial time constraint on it, they may think they're going to get a better deal. We'll just have to wait and see. But this is all part of the North Korean playbook. They've successfully jived the three prior American administrations, and they plan to do the same with this one.
INSKEEP: Is this administration at risk of being - did you say - jived?
BOLTON: Well, I think you have to approach North Korea with the view that they're not going to voluntarily give up their nuclear weapons program. There's simply no evidence, and there never has been for decades, that they're making a strategic decision not to proceed. And the nature of the way North Korea wants to negotiate, what they call action for action, invariably benefits the would-be nuclear weapons state because they get economic benefits that are much more important to them than the minimal concessions they make on the nuclear side.
And here's the key point - time is almost always on the side of the proliferator. The more time they have, the more they can overcome all the technological and scientific difficulties to perfecting a deliverable nuclear weapons capability. So the fact that they're not doing anything today and they didn't do anything yesterday that we can see is not a good sign. It probably just means we're not seeing it. But the longer time goes on, the greater their capability will become.
INSKEEP: Did differences over North Korea influence your departure from the White House, Ambassador?
BOLTON: Well, you know, I'm going to have my say on all that in due course, and I'll be happy to talk to you about it when the time is appropriate.
INSKEEP: Oh, and people will know you have a book coming out among various other forums. I guess I can ask, though, if impeachment, which the president now faces, weakens the president's hand when it comes to confronting a country like North Korea?
BOLTON: Well, you know, there's obviously a lot swirling around in that department, including some litigation that could affect my status. So I think, although I have a lot to say on the subject, the prudent course for me is just to decline to comment at this point.
INSKEEP: Oh, you don't want to talk about anything relating to impeachment. Are you able to give your view of this, though - why do you think the House, which asked for your testimony, did not then formally subpoena you?
BOLTON: Honestly, you'll have to ask them.
INSKEEP: Why not testify? People ask. I want you to have an opportunity to answer that.
BOLTON: Well, I appreciate that. But as I say, Dr. Kupperman, my former deputy, is in litigation now on what, to me, is a critical separation of powers question. When the House issues a subpoena, and in his case, and I think it would be true in mine, the president tells him not to testify, which authority controls? Dr. Kupperman went to court to seek the third branch's opinion in this conflict between the first two. I think that's a very important issue that needs to be resolved. When he went to court, the House withdrew their subpoena of him.
INSKEEP: This is Charles Kupperman, another official who has been summoned. And when you say they withdrew the subpoena, are you saying you think that maybe a court would find on the side of you not having to testify or not being allowed to testify?
BOLTON: Well, you know, Dr. Kupperman took the position in his case that he wasn't going to weigh in on the merits of either side. If the court determined he should testify, he was prepared to do it. But ironically, both the executive branch and the legislative branch didn't want the court to reach the merits. That case is still under advisement. So we're still hoping for a decision that will tell Dr. Kupperman which way he needs to go.
INSKEEP: Ambassador Bolton, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
BOLTON: Well, thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: That's our conversation yesterday afternoon with fired national security adviser John Bolton, who has been largely silent and largely out of the media since he was dismissed from office in September. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.