TOKYO — President Trump’s decision to make John Bolton his new national security adviser sent alarm bells ringing in Asia Friday, as American allies reeled at the prospect of a hawk who advocates military action against North Korea having the president’s ear.
Bolton has for years espoused bringing about regime change in North Korea, through force if necessary. And H.R. McMaster, the outgoing national security adviser, was no dove, repeatedly talking about military options for making North Korea give up its nuclear program.
But Bolton’s move into the president’s inner circle comes at a particularly sensitive time in the world’s dealings with North Korea, with the South Korean president preparing to hold a summit with Kim Jong Un at the end of April, and Trump planning to follow suit in May.
“By tapping Bolton, who has called for preemptive strikes against North Korea, Trump is sending a message to the regime, telling them that they should come out to talks in order to avoid such drastic military backlash,” said Kim Sung-han, a former South Korean vice foreign minister who is now dean of Korea University’s Graduate School of International Studies.
Bolton has advocated a hard line against North Korea since he served as undersecretary of state for arms control and ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration.
At that time, the North’s state Korea Central News Agency regularly denounced Bolton, calling him “human scum and a bloodsucker” and “a beastly man bereft of reason” who suffers from a “psychopathological condition.”
But in his role as a commentator on Fox News, Trump’s favorite network, he has had a pedestal to espouse his views.
“There’s an all-purpose joke here,” Bolton said this month when asked about North Korea’s conciliatory moves toward South Korea and, by extension, the United States. “Question: How do you know that the North Korean regime is lying? Answer: Their lips are moving.”
In a column in the Wall Street Journal at the end of February, Bolton wrote that the United States should not wait until it’s too late to launch action against North Korea. “It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first,” he wrote.
In previous columns, he had written that the United States should go ahead with a strike even if its allies in the region do not agree.
“The U.S. should obviously seek South Korea’s agreement (and Japan’s) before using force, but no foreign government, even a close ally, can veto an action to protect Americans from Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons,” he wrote in August 2017, after North Korea had tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Many analysts think that Kim’s regime would respond to a military strike on North Korea by unleashing the conventional artillery it has sitting on the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas. That artillery has all of Seoul, home to 25 million South Koreans, within range.
Japan has also been increasingly worried about becoming collateral damage as North Korea last year fired several missiles over Japanese territory, and threatened to strike American military bases in Japan.
“North Korea has the ability to inflict real pain on South Korea if we strike North Korea,” said Robert Kelly, an American who teaches international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea. “A strike could also easily slide into a tit-for-tat spiral which culminates in a serious conflict.”
There is also a significant deal of nervousness in Seoul that Bolton, who is set to take over as national security adviser on April 9, could try to scupper the diplomatic effort now underway.
“I met Bolton several times in informal settings during the Roh administration,” Kim Sung-han of Korea University said, referring to the South Korean progressive who was president for most of the years while George W. Bush was in office.
“He used to complain how Roh and his predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, prioritized inter-Korean engagement over South Korea’s relationship with the U.S,” he recalled, adding that the Moon administration would have to tread very carefully when communicating with Bolton.
“They will have to demonstrate to Bolton that the current administration’s approach to these issues is different from that of their predecessors,” he said.
The proposed summit between Kim and Trump is more tentative, with no date or location yet set, and no clear indication that the North’s nuclear program will even be on the agenda.
By selecting Bolton, Trump could be trying to walk into the talks with a “formidable stance,” said Park Hyeong-jung, a senior research fellow at Korea Institute for National Unification, which deals with inter-Korean relations.
“The two sides [the U.S. & North Korea] are picking their cards on the eve of the big talks,” he said. “The U.S. wants to boost its position so Trump decided to tap Bolton, a person who talks big.”
Bolton’s presence could also encourage Trump to take an even more confrontational stance against the regime.
“Trump is reorganizing his entourage so that he walks into the North Korean talks with people who share his views,” Park said.
There are also risks if the talks lead nowhere, because critics of engagement will use that as an opportunity to say that diplomacy has failed.
“I am particularly worried that if the Trump-Kim summit fails, Bolton will take that as proof that we must hit North Korea,” said Kelly.
Some South Korean newspapers saw signs that the Trump administration is preparing for military action in case diplomacy failed.
“The Moon administration is creating a different atmosphere than that of the U.S. government,” the Munhwa Ilbo said in an editorial Friday afternoon. “The U.S.’s concern about South Korea could be the motive behind these recent moves,” it said.
The U.S. military, which will hold joint annual drills with South Korea from April 1, will also stage a civilian evacuation drill next month, practicing getting Americans out of South Korea The “Focused Passage” exercise will take place from April 16-20, during the huge military exercises, Stars and Stripes reported. About 250,000 American civilians live in South Korea.
“The [South Korean] government should ramp up its coordination with the U.S.,” the paper said.
Min Joo Kim contributed reporting from Seoul.