Politics & Policy

Where’s Bolton?

Talks with North Korea start out on a wrong note.

Score one for North Korea. The State Department’s decision not to send Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton to represent the United States at the upcoming six-power talks in Beijing is an unexpected win for the incurably bizarre and increasingly dangerous Northeast Asian police state.

Bolton’s crime was pointing out the obvious. Two weeks ago in a speech entitled “A Dictatorship at the Crossroads,” he offended Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il by stating that the dictator “has not had to endure the consequences of his failed policies. While he lives like royalty in Pyongyang, he keeps hundreds of thousands of his people locked in prison camps with millions more mired in abject poverty, scrounging the ground for food. For many in North Korea, life is a hellish nightmare. As reported by the State Department Report on Human Rights, we believe that some 400,000 persons died in prison since 1972 and that starvation and executions were common. Entire families, including children, were imprisoned when only one member of the family was accused of a crime.”

This excerpt seems fairly tame compared to the vituperation the North Koreans disgorged in response. They described Bolton as “human scum,” “devoid of reason,” “an ugly fellow who cannot be regarded as a human being,” and a “bloodthirsty fiendish bloodsucker” among other colorful things. They petulantly refused to negotiate if he was on the American team, and until yesterday the U.S. stood by the undersecretary, at least publicly. On August 4, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan stated that Bolton “was speaking for the administration. His remarks last week reiterated things that we have said in the past.” But at behind-the-scenes meetings last week, the North Koreans were told that Bolton’s views were his personal opinion, not policy. One wonders what part of the statement is mere opinion — that Kim Jong Il has a lifestyle that makes the late Uday and Qusay look like perfect gentlemen? That daily life in North Korea is a bit low on personal amenities? Or perhaps the State Department human rights report he quoted was just his opinion? Bolton had also stated that “the days of DPRK blackmail are over,” but apparently he spoke too soon.

I can understand a certain diplomatic mindset that would see Bolton as a polarizing presence at the talks; the first issue on the table would be his statements about Kim Jong Il; the North Korean delegation would make a point of walking out; and nothing would be accomplished. But it was only because the US took a tough stance in the first place that the multilateral talks are going to take place at all. The North Koreans had been demanding bilateral negotiations for months, refusing to consider anything else and threatening dire consequences unless we responded to their demands (discussed here last January). The U.S. team, under Bolton’s leadership, called their bluff, waited them out, and the North Koreans caved. This raises the question — are they upset over Bolton’s relatively innocuous statements about Kim Jong Il (the man President Bush was quoted as saying he “loathes” by the way), or did they really just want Bolton out of the way because he has their number? Did they insist on his removal as a precondition for their participation in the talks? Seems to me that their least desired negotiator would ipso facto be our key player.

Would Bolton’s mere presence have scuttled the entire process? Hardly. The fact that the North Koreans agreed to talk at all shows that it was in their interest. They did not agree to the negotiations for our benefit, but for their own. They might have walked out of the first round of talks had Bolton been across the table from them, but so what? They would have come back eventually. It would only have required the patience to wait them out, as we did for the first part of this year. Apparently someone on our side is in a hurry to get results, but this sense of impatience plays to the demonstrated strengths of the North Koreans. Furthermore, despite our protestations to the contrary, they will conclude that they can shape — if not determine — the composition of our negotiating teams, which will only embolden them further.

The United States had a decidedly mixed record in negotiations with Communists during the Cold War. Generally speaking, we achieved favorable results in direct proportion to our demonstrations of resolve. Since we are dealing with the last surviving state to be erected by Joseph Stalin, one would hope that we would apply some of the lessons learned from that era. After all, we won, didn’t we?


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