The Trump administration’s plan for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program currently consists of two main components: an international campaign of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure against the Kim regime, plus direct nuclear talks this spring between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. The president’s new national-security adviser, John Bolton, doesn’t seem to believe that either of these approaches is likely to work.
Bolton is instead one of the most prominent proponents of a radical idea, which some hardline U.S. officials in Congress and the White House have refused to rule out but have not recommended with Bolton-like conviction: striking North Korea now, and risking the most destructive war in living memory, to prevent it from threatening the United States with nuclear weapons later.
In February, when Trump announced the “strongest sanctions ... that we have ever put on a country,” on ships and shipping companies helping North Korea evade trade restrictions, Bolton dismissed the measures. Twenty-five years of “pressure and diplomacy” have “failed” to halt the North’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, the former George W. Bush administration official told Newsweek. Sanctions might have made a difference 15 years ago, before North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon, but they won’t today, he maintained.
One of the few remaining options was to “persuade China” to “remove the regime in North Korea” and permit the reunification of the Korean peninsula. This was characterized as a “diplomatic option.” But Bolton doubted the Chinese could be convinced to reverse their longstanding policy of resisting regime change in North Korea. The United States is thus fast approaching a “binary choice”: live with a North Korea capable of attacking America with nuclear weapons, which Bolton claimed was intolerable, or take military action to avert that outcome, which he suggested was tolerable if unpalatable.
In March, after Trump shocked the world by agreeing to discuss “denuclearization” with Kim Jong Un by May, Bolton went on Fox News to applaud the meeting—not because it could resolve the nuclear crisis peacefully, but because it could quickly expose Kim Jong Un as a con man. When Kim balks at Trump’s demands to immediately give up his whole nuclear-weapons program and ship it off to the U.S., Bolton reasoned, the North Korean leader’s true motivation will be revealed: buying time through protracted negotiations to perfect nuclear-tipped long-range missiles that can reach the United States.
Bolton set a towering bar for success at the summit: not just complete and instant denuclearization, which most experts consider unachievable, but also voluntary regime change: “If Kim Jong Un comes in and says, ‘You know, I’ve seen the error of my ways. I’m gonna renounce my leadership of North Korea and go live in a villa on the seashore of China for the rest of my life and the regime can get on without me,’ that would be historic, but unlikely,” he said. Bolton went on to tell a kind of joke: “Question: How do you know that the North Korean regime is lying? Answer: Their lips are moving.”
If sanctions and diplomacy won’t stop North Korea from developing a long-range nuclear capability, and if a nuclear-armed North Korea is unacceptable, then that leaves no carrots and only the biggest of sticks: military force. In recent weeks Bolton has noted that North Korea is thought to be only months away from being able to deliver nuclear warheads to the United States, and that the U.S. might not be able to deter the reckless Kim regime from either using those weapons against America or selling nuclear and missile technology to American enemies like Iran or even terrorist groups. As a result, he’s argued, “striking first” to eliminate the “imminent threat” from North Korea qualifies as “self-defense” and “is perfectly legitimate.”
Bolton, who previously proposed U.S. military action to prevent Iraq and Iran from wielding weapons of mass destruction, has described in detail what preventive strikes against North Korea could look like. In August he wrote that the United States could try to destroy any North Korea missile poised for launch at America; target North Korean nuclear and missile facilities, launch sites, and submarine bases with cyberattacks or bombing raids from the air and sea; or take out North Korea’s leadership with airstrikes or special-operations forces and then dispatch ground forces to seize North Korea’s capital, nuclear program, and military sites.
He acknowledged that North Korea could respond to any of these actions by retaliating against South Korea and Japan, and advised the U.S. military to do everything it could to minimize the blowback. (Experts estimate that thousands or even millions of people, including deployed U.S. troops and American expats, could die if conflict were to break out on the Korean peninsula.) But Bolton, a fierce nationalist who has ridiculed the South Koreans for being “like putty in North Korea’s hands” when it comes to the North’s diplomatic overtures, also wrote that while the United States “should obviously seek South Korea’s agreement (and Japan’s) before using force … no foreign government, even a close ally, can veto an action to protect Americans from Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons.”
Once ensconced in his West Wing office, Bolton could surprise everyone and become a convert to a North Korea policy of pressure and engagement. But Bolton’s firm belief in the purifying power of regime change, his confidence in the efficacy of war and distrust of measures short of war, suggest he’s more likely to steer the Trump administration in an even more hardline direction. And that doesn’t just apply to North Korea. Bolton has asserted that Iran “is nearly as imminent” a threat because the Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear deal has given the Iranians access to money to purchase nuclear hardware from North Korea. What’s at stake in North Korea and Iran, he claims, is nothing less than whether nuclear weapons become “commonplace” throughout the world.