The newly released full text of the former National Security Advisor of the U.S. John Bolton’s memoir on the behind-the-scenes story of the denuclearization talks among the leaders of the two Koreas and the U.S. is causing a stir. The book, which includes his subjective interpretation, is not entirely factual. However, it is hard to ignore the political calculations prioritized by the three leaders and the absurd demands made by the North.
During a phone conversation with U.S. President Donald Trump the day after the inter-Korean summit at the Joint Security Area, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Kim Jong Un proposed the closure of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site and promised complete denuclearization. The South Korean president practically gave a green light to his U.S. counterpart to attend a meeting with the North with faith in the country’s willingness to denuclearize. However, the attitude of the North later makes it difficult to exclude the possibility that President Moon either misjudged or subjectively interpreted the intention of the North Korean leader. According to Bolton's memoir, Kim Jong Un insistently made unacceptable demands during the Hanoi negotiations, such as the lifting of all United Nation’s sanctions against the country for closing the Yongbyon nuclear facilities, which were basically scrap metal at that point.
In addition, the South Korean government explanation that Kim Jong Un himself proposed discussions with the U.S., which later led to the U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore in 2018, is also coming under suspicion. Bolton wrote that South Korea’s National Security Office Director Chung Eui-yong proposed to Kim Jong Un to meet with President Trump while telling the U.S. president that the North Korean leader wanted to meet. Consequently, this led to misunderstanding on both sides – the U.S. assuming North Korea’s denuclearization possibility and the North believing the potential ease of sanctions. What South Korea had done was far from the “honest broker” needed in negotiations between countries and only revealed the fact that the theories that South Korea should be in a “driver’s seat” or play mediating roles are a delusion when the country loses trust.
The newly released memoir also bares the impromptu side of President Trump who has been focused on solidifying his political stance, rather than denuclearization. The book also showed that Kim Jong Un tried to take advantage of President Trump and have the sanctions removed while maintaining the country’s nuclear facilities through top-down negotiations. As each of the three leaders approached the issue based on their own political interests, a crisis has emerged on the Korean Peninsula, in which the North’s denuclearization is still far away while the country engages in military provocations due to the sanctions.
Despite the revelation of such stories, Bolton’s book breaks the unwritten rule of diplomacy of not disclosing the details of discussions between the heads of countries, which may negatively affect trust between South Korea and the U.S. Chung Eui-yong said on Monday that many parts of the Bolton’s memoir are distorted. Such a breach of trust should not be left alone amid high tensions surrounding the Korean Peninsula following North Korea’s explosion of the inter-Korean joint liaison office in Kaesong. What South Korea and the U.S. should focus on at the moment is rebuilding the bilateral trust and developing the North Korea response strategy. There is no path other than turning away from the delusional theories of being in a “driver’s seat” or playing mediating roles and leading the North to denuclearization using sanctions against the country based on international cooperation.