On September 10, President Trump fired John Bolton, his third national security adviser, announcing on Twitter that Bolton’s “services were no longer needed.” Unsurprisingly, Bolton fired back by tweet, countering that he hadn’t been fired, but in fact had offered his resignation.
It was no secret in Washington that Trump grew increasingly frustrated with Bolton’s hawkish positions, even joking in meetings with him, “If it was up to John, we’d be in four wars now.” Despite their differences, Trump viewed Bolton as instrumental to advancing his foreign policy agenda. According to several sources, “the president says having Bolton on his team improves his bargaining position and gives him a psychological advantage over foes like Iran and North Korea.”
From the very day Bolton assumed the role of national security adviser 17 months ago, prospects for peace with North Korea didn’t have a fighting chance. Bolton was a proponent of U.S. military action to prevent Iran and Iraq from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, and he made his position on North Korea clear in an August 2017 Wall Street Journal op-ed in which he outlined military options for North Korea, from cyberattacks to regime change through special operations forces.
Uri Friedman in The Atlantic predicted that “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.”
There was never a diplomatic deal with North Korea that John Bolton liked. In fact, from the 1994 Agreed Framework the United States negotiated with North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons program, up to the February 2019 Hanoi summit, Bolton has had his hand in sabotaging any agreement between Washington and Pyongyang.
Bolton was among the chief architects in the Bush administration who destroyed the Agreed Framework, the 1994 agreement the Clinton administration negotiated with then-leader Kim Jong Il to freeze North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
According to former State Department official Robert Carlin, “The Agreed Framework did not fail; it was murdered. It was deliberately destroyed by the Bush administration. That’s not a failure.” Bolton, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney justified gutting the Agreed Framework after discovering that the North Koreans were enriching uranium. “This was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework,” Bolton wrote in his memoir.
Unsurprisingly, it was Bolton who played a key role in squandering the opportunity for a deal at the second summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un in Hanoi in February. According to longtime North Korea expert Leon Sigal, working-level meetings led by U.S. Special Representative Stephen Biegun ahead of the summit resolved a number of issues, including an end-of-war declaration, establishment of liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington, and the scaling back of U.S.-South Korean war drills. Then, in Hanoi, Trump presented a “grand bargain” to Kim: trade all of its nuclear weapons, material and facilities in exchange for an end to U.S.-led sanctions. North Korea viewed this offer as a U.S. demand for North Korea’s unilateral disarmament. North Korea was further offended by Bolton, who explained on CBS after Hanoi that denuclearization also included Pyongyang’s “ballistic-missile program and its chemical- and biological-weapons program.”
With election season upon us, Trump recognizes that he doesn’t have a single foreign policy victory — especially an agreement with North Korea, in which he has invested so much political capital. Although North Korea has not crossed the red line by testing long-range missiles, the country has conducted several short-range missile tests and Kim has set an end-of-year deadline for a diplomatic breakthrough before what many experts predict could be a return to testing nuclear weapons. To make progress on reaching an agreement with Kim, Trump likely realized Bolton had to go. That’s why Bolton was sent to Mongolia during the third summit with Kim in June, so as not to derail progress with North Korea.
Instead of celebrating the deposing of one of the most dangerous men in power, the liberal establishment — especially the Democratic leadership — used Bolton’s firing to further attack Trump. While Trump himself was leading the charge to “totally destroy” North Korea during the early days of fire and fury, as the two Koreas began to make historic peace following the 2018 winter Olympics, his stance shifted while those of his national security adviser — and leaders across the aisle — hadn’t. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted, “John Bolton’s sudden departure is a symbol of the disarray that has unnerved our allies since day one of the Trump Administration. Steady leadership & strategic foreign policy is key to ensuring America’s national security.”
But it wasn’t just the establishment Democratic leadership. Progressive champion Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted a photo of a CNN headline that read: “Trump sides with Kim Jong Un over Bolton” and added, “That’s it. That’s the headline.” This was re-tweeted by Rep. Ilhan Omar who added, “Trump sides with yet another dictator.”
Progressives, especially Korean Americans, were flabbergasted, especially given that both Ocasio-Cortez and Omar were among the first Democrats to co-sponsor H.Res. 152, which calls for an end to the Korean War with a peace agreement. Minju Bae, a labor organizer of Asian American communities in New York City tweeted, “Someone needs to write an oped about how @AOC and @IlhanMN’s tweet about 45 and Kim Jung Un is actually REALLY harmful to the people working towards a people’s reunification of the Korean Peninsula.”
Progressive journalist Adam Johnson called out the squad by tweeting, “When U.S. leaders side with allied dictators it’s bad and should be called out. When they have mere talks with dictators of countries we’ve been sanctioning and threatening and bombed and killed 20% of the population … this is not at all the same thing.” This forced a nuanced response from Rep. Omar, “I support diplomacy with North Korea and a formal end to the Korean War, which is why I cosponsored the resolution by @RoKhanna recognizing that.”
On North Korea, Democrats couldn’t be more wrong on how dangerous Bolton was and the numerous obstacles he placed to achieving diplomacy with Pyongyang. Meeting with Kim Jong Un isn’t a concession; it’s the process of building peace. Instead of perpetuating tired old tropes about North Korea that close the political space for diplomacy, progressives and Democrats should be attacking Trump from the left.
Instead of a knee-jerk reaction to Trump’s erratic diplomacy with North Korea, progressives and Democrats could offer a bold vision for rigorous diplomacy that could yield a final resolution to the Korean War and ultimately denuclearization. In a memo to all presidential candidates, a network of peace and disarmament organizations led by the Korea Peace Now! campaign outlined pro-diplomacy and pro-peace principles for a new U.S. policy on North Korea. Among the principles are a step-by-step approach, confidence-building measures, supporting our ally South Korea, making the peace process more inclusive, but critically, ending the Korean War.
Successful diplomacy to achieve denuclearization will require a step-by-step process that must include a peace agreement and normalized relations. With Bolton out of the way, Biegun now has a clear path to advance a peace process. In a speech last week at the University of Michigan, he offered a pragmatic approach to reviving stalled talks:
Neither the United States nor North Korea has to accept all the risk of moving forward. There are immediate actions that we can take if negotiations make progress. Judging by the talks President Trump has had with Chairman Kim, and that our team has had over the past year with our North Korean counterparts, it is clear that both sides can quickly agree to significant actions that will declare to our respective peoples—and to the world—that U.S.-North Korea relations have taken an irreversible turn away from conflict.
As veteran Korea journalist Tim Shorrock told Truthout in an email, “If Trump sticks with Stephen Biegun, who had embraced that strategy before being overridden by Bolton, then I think prospects are good once talks start again, at least for an interim agreement.”
It’s time to end the Korean War by replacing the 1953 Armistice Agreement, which temporarily halted the Korean War, with a formal peace agreement. When U.S. and North Korean commanders signed the ceasefire, they promised within 90 days to return to negotiate a permanent political settlement. That agreement is long overdue. It is in the interests of 80 million people who live on the Korean Peninsula, the millions more throughout the region, and all Americans. Ending 70 years of hostility and mistrust will take leaders across the political aisle to support peace.