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Bolton: North Korea Unlikely to Denuclearize Under Kim

Former US national security adviser John Bolton speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Sept. 30, 2019.
Former US national security adviser John Bolton speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Sept. 30, 2019.

North Korea has not made a strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons and the prospects for efforts to achieve denuclearization through diplomacy remain dim, said John Bolton, former President Donald Trump’s national security adviser.

If the U.S. pursues "an agreement with Kim Jong Un that relies on him promising to give up his nuclear weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief," it would fail, said Bolton during an interview with VOA's Korean Service this week.

The assessment comes as the Biden administration nears the end of a review of how to approach North Korea.

"I think the regime is committed to developing and keeping nuclear weapons. I think they see it as essential to their survival," Bolton added.

In January during the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), Kim said he will bolster his country’s nuclear weapons program.

“We must further strengthen the nuclear war while doing our best to build up the most powerful military strength,” said Kim, who is the WPK chairman.

Trump and Kim met three times, but they failed to reach a nuclear deal. Bolton believes North Korea will not abandon its nuclear weapons program voluntarily and China holds the key to pressing North Korea toward denuclearization.

"China has used North Korea ever since the peninsula was partitioned for its own purposes," the former adviser said. "Given China's economic influence in North Korea, it could still call the shots if it wants to."

Bolton's gloomy assessment paints a dim picture of prospects for nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang that the Biden administration is weighing.

Washington has reached out to North Korea multiple times since February, but Pyongyang rejected the contacts.

On March 21, the North test-fired two short-range cruise missiles, an activity not banned by United Nations resolutions. Days later, on March 25, the North flight-tested two short-range ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. sanctions.

Despite North Korea's apparent unwillingness to talk, the White House said the U.S. remains open to diplomacy.

"We are prepared to consider some form of diplomacy if it’s going to lead us down the path toward denuclearization,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters this week.

On Friday, Jalina Porter, principal deputy spokesperson at the State Department, told reporters that “the U.S. remains committed to the denuclearization of North Korea.”

Measuring diplomatic success

Analysts said it is far from settled whether the Biden administration should give up diplomacy with the Kim regime entirely as Bolton suggested.

Thomas Countryman, who served as the acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security under the Obama administration, said diplomacy with North Korea requires "patience" and diplomatic success should not be measured by whether or not there is a "dramatic breakthrough."

Joseph DeTrani, who served as the U.S. special envoy to the Six-Party Talks from 2003 to 2006, said the Biden administration still needs to test Kim's commitment to denuclearization through engagement.

The six-party talks were a series of multilateral negotiations attended by China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Chaired by China in Beijing, the talks focused on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program.

“There’s no question diplomacy is key, diplomacy is key to resolving issues with North Korea,” DeTrani said.

Bolton said Pyongyang’s capacity to proliferate its nuclear weaponry is one of the imminent threats Washington must face.

“We do know this,” Bolton said. “If Iran made a wire transfer of a substantial amount of money to North Korea, they could have a North Korean nuclear warhead within a matter of days and so could anybody else with the same financial assets."