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John Bolton could face the same fate as Steve Bannon now Kim Jong-un is threatening to pull out of his meeting with Trump

Those of us who saw the body of Muammar Gaddafi and his son Mutassim lying on the floor of a meat warehouse in Libya could well understand why Kim Jong-un would not want the same fate to befall him

Kim Sengupta
Wednesday 16 May 2018 16:57 BST
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Newly appointed US National Security Advisor John Bolton 'wasn't expecting' Trump to make the announcement with a tweet

A dictator gives up his nuclear weapons programme voluntarily, assured that in return his country will be allowed to come in from the international cold. A few years later, however, he is overthrown thanks to Nato and American bombing, hunted down and lynched.

Another country also gives up its nuclear weapons programme. It keeps its side of the agreement, and the six states that have signed it, as well as the UN, acknowledge that it is working. Then one of the countries, the US, gets a new president who arbitrarily tears up the deal, ignoring entreaties not to do so from allies.

That is what happened, respectively, with Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya and Iran. It is hardly surprising that North Korea is having doubts about holding talks over its own nuclear programme with a US administration which has just shown that it cannot be trusted to keep to an international agreement.

Pyongyang has focused on what happened to Libya, and specifically on what was said by Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, who has declared that the Libyan disarmament would be the template the US wants for North Korea. Pyongyang’s vice foreign minister, Kim Kye-gwan, was personal in condemnation about Bolton: “We do not hide our feelings of repugnance towards him,” he stated.

North Korea has maintained in the past that Libya would not have faced a Western attack if it had kept its nuclear weapons. Those of us who saw the body of Muammar Gaddafi and his son Mutassim lying on the floor of a meat warehouse in Misrata could well understand why Kim Jong-un would not want the same fate to befall him.

Kim Kye-gwan’s statement is not just rhetoric – he is a senior figure in the North Korean hierarchy who has negotiated with the US before, and what he said would not have come without the backing of the full leadership. Pyongyang has cancelled the scheduled next round of talks with Seoul and warned it will abandon the planned summit with Trump in Singapore on 12 June.

“If the US corners us and unilaterally demands we give up nuclear weapons, we will no longer have an interest in talks and will reconsider whether we would accept the North Korea-US summit meeting”, said Kim Kye-gwan. North Korea had “high hopes” but it was “very unfortunate that the US is provoking us ahead of the summit by spitting out ludicrous statements.”

Pyongyang feels that it has been making all the gestures of concession so far. It has held talks with the South; suspended missile tests and will be dismantling a nuclear test site with the international media present. But it also knows that it is the nuclear arsenal that gives it bargaining power at the talks, and they are not going to acquiesce to American demands to start getting rid of it immediately.

The US administration is said to have been caught by surprise by the North Korean move and is planning to continue with preparations for the summit. But the spotlight, inevitably, is now on John Bolton.

Trump’s national security adviser replaced lieutenant general HR McMaster, who Trump had come to view as not being aggressive enough. Bolton is not personally a man of action, unlike McMaster. Like Trump, Bolton was a Vietnam draft dodger, but he has been steadfastly keen on other people going to wars. Bolton remains a firm believer in the Iraq invasion – based on falsehood about supposed weapons of mass destruction – and has publicly advocated bombing Iran and North Korea.

Mike Pompeo meets Kim Jong-un in North Korea

Shaul Mofaz, the former Israeli defence minister and chief of staff, revealed recently that Bolton, while US ambassador to the UN, pressurised Israel to bomb Iran. Mofaz declined, saying: “I don’t think it is a smart move.”

In the final days before Trump abandoned the Iran deal, Mike Pompeo, another hardliner brought in as secretary of state to replace Rex Tillerson (someone else Trump thought was too moderate), was hopeful that it could be saved in form. The European signatories to the agreement had got Tehran to agree to further concessions and Pompeo is said to have told Western diplomats that he may be able to work on Trump, if he had a few more days, to get a possible stay of execution.

It was, instead, Bolton who had Trump’s ear. The national security adviser has, according to reports, been quick to ensure that there are frequent closed door meetings between himself and the president. Other senior members of the administration, like defence secretary James Mattis, also deemed too moderate by Trump and his right-wing advisers, are being distanced.

Bolton is far brighter than Trump and may feel that he will be the Svengali able to mould the presidency to his own American world view and be, in effect, the new Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, who wanted to be known as the “shadow president”.

But this is unlikely to be a smooth process. Let us remember what happened to Bannon, who was supposed to have such a hold on Trump, and basically wrote his inauguration speech. One may argue that Bolton is in tune with Trump’s desire for international confrontation. But Bannon, with whom the president was so enamoured, was an isolationist, quite the opposite of Bolton the interventionist. There is no knowing what Trump’s views may change to in the future.

The Singapore summit would be seen as an achievement for Pompeo, who has been personally liaising with Kim Jong-un, and the secretary of state would not want to see it fall apart now. Pompeo has already had disagreements with Bolton over the future course of action with North Korea. The US, he held, would help with large-scale investment in infrastructure and agriculture to help the impoverished country, only for Bolton to slap it down with “I wouldn’t look to economic aid from us.” Pompeo is likely to fight his corner, knowing his reputation as a hardliner gives him more strength in this administration than someone like Mattis.

Trump is said to feel more and more confident in his presidential abilities without having to depend on advisers. He apparently made the final decision on Iran without final consultations with cabinet members and senior officials about ramifications, and then, as he does, tweeted it. Bolton only found out from a European official who had seen the tweet.

Trump genuinely seems to believe that a North Korea deal would get him the Nobel Peace Prize. This is something that Pyongyang seems to have realised, pointedly stating that if the Bolton approach scuppers the deal then Trump “will be recorded as a more tragic and unsuccessful president than his predecessors, far from his initial ambition to make an unprecedented success”.

Overplaying his hand, Bolton may find, could mean that he suffers the same fate as Bannon, sinking back into the shadows rather than becoming the “shadow president” of the US, wielding real power behind the scenes.

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