Ambassador John Bolton on the Korean crisis building
HH: Given the actions of this weekend, it was a good time to talk with John Bolton. He’s held a number of senior positions in the United States government, most recently as ambassador to the United Nations from the U.S. Ambassador Bolton, welcome back, now at AEI, thank you for joining us today.
JB: Very glad to be here.
HH: Give us first your overall assessment of the nuclear test, the missile test, and today’s announcement about the end of the ’53 armistice.
JB: Well, North Korea is determined to have a deliverable nuclear weapons capability. It needed this second test because the first test in October of 2006 was something of a fizzle. And by all accounts, it has made major steps forward in its weapons design, and continues to make progress on missiles. So the bottom line is that North Korea wants a nuclear capability. And all the leaks and all the chatter you hear from the White House and the administration that this is all bluster, and has something to do with the succession to Kim Jung Il, to me is just dodging the real point. Let’s remember what happened on Monday. They set off a nuclear weapon. There isn’t any hesitation in Japan. They know what that means. They’ve had their own experience. And South Korea has gotten much more aware of the nature of the problem. And both of those countries are now taking a much harder line approach. The irony is that it’s the United States that’s heading in the direction of a much softer approach under President Obama.
HH: You refer to the U.S. reaction. In fact, the White House today said that North Korea’s threats against South Korea will not give it attention that Pyongyang wants, will only add to its isolation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is warning that North Korea will face consequences because of provocative and belligerent actions. But what exactly can we do, Ambassador Bolton?
JB: Well, the administration is saying that they want, and Secretary Clinton said it again today, they want North Korea back at the six party talks. Now these talks have been underway for six years. They have utterly failed to restrain North Korea. And if you’re sitting in Pyongyang and hearing the administration both before the nuclear test and after the nuclear test say that that’s what they want the next step to be, the only conclusion you can draw on North Korea is that you’re getting a free pass on this test, and on subsequent tests down the road. The six party talks have failed. We need to get over that. Unfortunately, there’s no sign the administration understands it. The fact is, we need to take much stronger action against North Korea. I’d put them back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The Bush administration never should have taken them off that list. I would once again cut off their access to international financial markets. Here again, the Bush administration had them over a barrel with the Banco Delta Asia matter and let them escape. We need to put those constraints back in. We’ve had a big boost just in the past 24 hours from the government of South Korea announcing it was going to join after five years now, it was finally going to join the U.S.-led proliferation security initiative, which is a major effort to stop international trafficking in weapons of mass destruction. And we need to put more pressure on China to use its leverage on North Korea either to get rid of Kim Jung Il or at a minimum, to constrain their ability to deal on these nuclear weapons internationally.
HH: Now Russia’s very concerned. The TASS news agency today quoted a Russian foreign ministry official as saying the war of nerves over North Korea should not be allowed to grow into a military conflict. “We assume that dangerous brinksmanship, a war of nerves is underway, but it will not grow into a hot war. Restraint is needed.” Obviously, they are worried about a hot war, John Bolton.
JB: Yeah, well, it’s not like the United States is conducting a war on nerves. Our war of nerves consists of saying well, why don’t you sit down at the table and negotiate with us again. Russia should be worried. They’ve been a marginal player in the six party talks, but they have a lot of equities here themselves. They have a border with North Korea, they could provide aid to the Chinese in taking a harder line. I mean, the fact is as long as Kim Jung Il is empowered, North Korea’s going to retain its nuclear weapons capability. And China ought to understand that. So should Russia. If North Korea keeps its nuclear weapons, I think it’s only a matter of time before Japan decides that they need nuclear weapons as well. Neither Russia nor China should want that. The Chinese are concerned that if they put too much pressure on Kim Jung Il, the regime will collapse, and Korea will reunify. Well, here’s the news. Korea will reunify one day just like Germany did. This division of the peninsula is unnatural, and China can either be on the right side of history, or they can continue resisting it. We need to have stronger, more effective advocacy with China to get them to recognize the inevitable, and help us with Kim Jung Il.
– – – –
HH: Ambassador Bolton, it was widely reported that in 1994, prior to the deal with the Clinton administration, that Bill Clinton and his senior advisors considered a preemptive strike on North Korea because of its nuclear brinksmanship. Did that kind of conversation ever rise to senior levels in the Bush administration?
JB: Well, there were certainly possibilities that could have arisen where we might have done something, but I must say because of the continuing struggle during both Bush terms over what our Korea policy would be, it never amounted to very much. And you know, just as a footnote to history, the idea that we tried a hard line with respect to North Korea, that we tried isolating them and that we failed during the Bush administration is just a misreading of what happened. The sad fact is that the Bush administration’s Korea policy was hopelessly back and forth, up and down in the first term, and in many respects, hard to distinguish from the current Obama policy in the second term. We never really did try a truly effective hard line, and I think we’re seeing the unfortunate consequences of that right now.
HH: In those accounts of the Clinton era consideration of preemptive military action, there were accounts of up to a million casualties as a result of such an action. Do you agree that that’s a fair assessment of what war on the Korean Peninsula would mean?
JB: Well you know, that’s the absolute worst case scenario if North Korea then invades South Korea in retaliation. I personally think we’d need to stay away from the military option. I think that it’s risky no matter what the level of casualties. And I also think that because there are so many alternatives we haven’t tried, like really pressuring China. Now I think that’s unlikely in this administration. Their priority seems to be climate change negotiations with China. My own view is that nuclear weapons in the hands of a regime like Kim Jung Il are a lot more serious threat to the U.S. and everybody else in the world today than climate change. But if you’re not willing to elevate North Korea’s nuclear program on the list with China, not much is going to happen.
HH: The security anti-proliferation initiative of the Bush administration where vessels are stopped on the high seas believed to be carrying contraband, is that going to be a flashpoint, John Bolton? Or is that something we’ve got to maintain else these materials will slip through and proliferate?
JB: Well, PSI was, is a global program. That is what it was intended for when it was created back in 2003. That’s what it’s done since then. It helped break up the A.Q. Khan network and exposed Libya’s nuclear weapons program. So it’s not just aimed at North Korea, but you know, the fact is every time somebody does anything that might have a real impact on North Korea, they respond with this over-the-top rhetoric. Another favorite phrase of theirs I haven’t seen this week, but maybe we’ll see it by the end of the week, is they threaten to unleash a sea of fire on the Korean Peninsula. And they do this repeatedly by saying they’re going to abrogate the 1953 Armistice, that seizure of a North Korean ship would be an act of war, because they think it will intimidate the United States and South Korea. And you know, they’ve got good reason to think that, because when they’ve tried it before, it has worked. From North Korea’s point of view, belligerent rhetoric pays off. And the issue is whether the Obama administration is going to make it pay off again, in effect, enabling that kind of approach. If we took a different approach, we might get a different result.
HH: In terms of what we could go vis-à-vis China, John Bolton, Robert Kaplan has argued that China worries most about a collapse and a massive refugee exodus from North Korea into the People’s Republic of China. Against that fear that keeps China propping up North Korea and fuel oil and occasional food, what kind of sanctions are available to the United States or bargaining chips to use against China to use a harder line?
JB: There are a number of things that we can do that could reduce the impact of the refugee flow. But I think it’s very important to acknowledge that the nuclear threat is much graver than the threat of instability in North Korea. It’s not anything we want to see, but if we have, if we’re faced with the dilemma, far better to see a change of government in North Korea even with a tendon humanitarian difficulties than to leave this regime in power.
HH: Well, even if we agree with that, what are the steps that you’ve take vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China to get them to agree with that approach, the kind of pressures we can bring on them.
JB: Well, I think if we say to China this will be a much more important issue in the bilateral relationship between our two countries, that that will get their attention. China does not want Japan and South Korea and Taiwan to go nuclear. If those countries don’t believe that the United States and China are seriously addressing North Korea’s nuclear program, they will move in that direction themselves. So ironically, a tougher line on North Korea is very much in China’s interest.
HH: Now much time would it require Japan to go nuclear, John Bolton?
JB: Many people think only a matter of months. They have a very advanced civil nuclear program. They have substantial amounts of spent fuel with plutonium in the spent fuel that could be reprocessed. They have a very sophisticated scientific community. They have advanced missile capabilities now. They can launch their own satellites. So it wouldn’t take Japan long.
HH: And finally, unless I can hold you one more segment, the national missile defense budget was cut by $1.8 billion dollars by the Obama administration, at least their proposal is. What do you make of that decision by the new administration?
JB: I think that was a very reckless decision. I think the facts that we’re seeing now of North Korea continuing to advance both in its nuclear program and its ballistic missile program show that this is a very real threat. And not only from North Korea, but Iran and other would-be proliferators are watching very carefully how we handle this issue, and they will conclude, again quite reasonably from their perspective, that if North Korea can get away with this, so can they.
– – – –
HH: Ambassador Bolton, it’s a short segment, about three minutes, but obviously, we’re coming to showdown time with Iran. What do you think, based upon the Netanyahu visit and reports about it, and what you’ve learned from your colleagues both in and out of government, is going to happen in the next 90 to 120 days, vis-à-vis Iran and Israel?
JB: Well, I think the next step is to see who wins the Iranian presidential election on June 12th. And I’m not a prognosticator, but frankly, I don’t think it makes any difference substantively whether Ahmadinejad wins or not. If he does win, I think that the Israelis simply pick up the pace of their planning and preparation. If another candidate wins, I think the Obama administration will make every effort to get into bilateral negotiations very quickly, and will use those negotiations to argue to Israel that it should not follow the military option. I think this is a very dangerous course to follow. Iran now knows everything it needs to know to have a deliverable nuclear weapons program. We ought to be asking ourselves how much cooperation there is between Iran and North Korea, not just on ballistic missiles where we know there’s cooperation, but on the nuclear front as well. But I think the Obama administration has made it very clear they want diplomacy. I’m sure they’re going to pursue it. And the issue is what Israel does by the end of the year. If they’re going to exercise the military option, they really need to do it in a fairly short period of time.
HH: Do you think they will?
JB: Based on their history, you’d have to say the odds were pretty high. They attacked the Osirak reactor outside of Baghdad in 1981. They destroyed a North Korean reactor in Syria in September of 2007. When they see an existential threat to the state of Israel, they’ve acted in the past, and that’s certainly what they face in Iran today.
HH: Amir Taheri, the Persian exile, wrote the book, The Persian Night, argued on this program that Iran always backs down when confronted with force. If in fact Israel struck, what would you imagine would be the response of the mullahs and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, John Bolton?
JB: Well, I don’t think it would be nearly as apocalyptic as people predict. You know, they talk about closing the Straits of Hormuz to oil shipments, they talk about Iran cutting off its oil shipments, attacking American troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, increasing terrorist activity around the world. I think all those things are highly unlikely, because if Iran were to do any of them, it would risk a direct response from us, and I don’t think they want that. I think the bigger threat is to Israel, using Hezbollah and Hamas to rocket civilian sites inside Israel. I think that’s one of the reasons why this is such a difficult calculation for Israel to decide what to do, because they may well bear the brunt of any Iranian retaliation.
HH: 30 seconds, Ambassador, is there any way to deter Iran other than military action from going nuclear?
JB: No, they’re going to, they’ve been at this for twenty years. They’re determined to have a nuclear weapons capability. Nothing we’ve done has stopped them, and the road is open, I think, except for the possibility of Israel.
HH: John Bolton, always a pleasure, thanks for your time, Mr. Ambassador.
End of interview.