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No, it wasn't Bolton who screwed up the North Korea summit

By Gary Gambill - posted Thursday, 31 May 2018

In the wake of the collapse of a planned June 12 summit between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un last week, commentators have rushed to point the finger at National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Bolton "seems to have played a key role in the cancellation" wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. "John Bolton must be stoked," tweeted Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). "John Bolton's Wrecking Ball Takes Down North Korea Summit" reads the headline of Ankit Panda's Daily Beast op-ed. F.H. Buckley calls for him to be fired.

In fact, Bolton was barely involved. It was a pair of jaw-dropping televised gaffes by the president and vice-president that sent the Trump-Kim lovefest into a downward spiral.


The saga began on April 29, when Bolton was asked on CBS's Face the Nation about the administration's expectation that Kim Jong Un demonstrate upfront his willingness to give up nuclear weapons. "I think we're looking at the Libya model of 2003, 2004," Bolton replied, referring to Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi's abrupt decision to verifiably abandon all of his weapons of mass destruction and associated infrastructure, which helped rapidly bring him back into the good graces of the West after years of pariahdom stemming from Libya's orchestration of the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

"What we want to see from them is evidence that it's real and not just rhetoric," Bolton explained, adding that "one thing that Libya did that led us to overcome our skepticism was that they allowed American and British observers into all their nuclear related sites ... it wasn't a question of relying on international mechanisms." As a result, said Bolton, "we saw them in ways we had never seen before."

Bolton's reference to the Libya model (not the first since his appointment weeks earlier) was perfectly clear to anyone with a passing familiarity with disarmament issues, and to the North Koreans, who ignored it until pre-summit negotiations grew acrimonious in mid-May. In a May 16 statement, North Korea rejected the Libya model of "abandoning nuclear weapons first, compensating afterward," adding that "it is absolutely absurd to dare compare the DPRK (North Korea), a nuclear weapon state, to Libya which had been at the initial stage of nuclear development."

However, Bolton's point was not perfectly clear to President Trump, who was asked to comment on North Korea's complaints about the "Libyan model" the next day in an exchange with reporters at the White House. Evidently ignorant of Libya's WMD disarmament fifteen years ago (a relatively minor news story even then), Trump assumed Bolton was talking about Qaddafi's overthrow by a U.S.-led coalition during the 2011 Arab Spring. "The Libya model isn't the model that we have at all when we're thinking of North Korea," he replied, adding, "If you look at that model with Qaddafi, that was a total decimation. We went in there to beat him. Now, that model will take place if we don't make a deal, most likely."

That Trump, who had been gushing with praise for North Korea since welcoming home three American prisoners a week earlier, suddenly found himself threatening to "decimate" North Korea because of his misunderstanding of Bolton's "Libya model" was bad enough. No one in the administration corrected the mistake. Indeed, the mistake became the new truth inside the White House.

In a May 21 interview with Fox News,Pence brought up the Libya model unprompted and closely parroted both Trump's misinterpretation of Bolton and his threat of regime change: "You know, there was some talk about the Libya model last week. And you know, as the president made clear, you know, this will only end like the Libya Model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn't make a deal."


Hours later, North Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui denounced the "ignorant and stupid remarks gushing out from the mouth of the U.S. vice-president" and threatened to "put forward a suggestion to our supreme leadership for reconsidering the DPRK-U.S. summit." This insult led Trump to announce cancellation of the summit on Thursday.

This week, Trump is full of obsequious praise for the North Korean dictator as his administration reportedly scrambles to revive the June 12 summit. In light of the president's resistance to sitting through detailed briefings on North Korea and the fact that he still "doesn't think he needs to" prepare for the summit, according to a senior White House official quoted by Time, let's hope it stays cancelled.

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This article was first published by the National Post.

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About the Author

Gary C Gambill is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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