Former U.S. national security advisor John Bolton has claimed that U.S. President Donald Trump may be able to push his way to reducing the number of U.S. forces in South Korea despite obstacles from the U.S. Congress.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) does not stand above the rights of the commander-in-chief speculated in the Constitution for the United States, Bolton said in a video interview with The Dong-A Ilbo on Friday (local time). The U.S. Congress does not have an authority to have a say regarding the revocation of any international conventions and agreements, according to the former advisor. As explained in his message, the NDAA has its limitations on putting the brakes on the U.S. administration’s moves to reduce U.S. troops stationed overseas although the law has recently passed the U.S. Congress to keep the number of the U.S. Forces in South Korea above 28,500.
Asked about how likely it is to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, Japan and other nations, Bolton said that the item is on the “real” list. He went on to say that President Trump sent Seoul and Tokyo a warning message on his trips to the two allies last July that he may redefine the foundations of their alliance if the issues regarding defense cost sharing are left unaddressed.
John Bolton, the former National Security Advisor to President Donald Trump and author of a best-selling book which has laid bare his thoughts on the president's foreign policy controversies, "The Room Where It Happened", set out his comments unabashedly. Meeting with Dong-A Ilbo and it's affiliate ChannelA via online on July 10, he said "Trump talks about a lot of things that aren't true" - referring to a direct (phone) line or number with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un which President Donald Trump often has boasted as a sign of their 'special relationship'.
When asked about the recent statement by Kim Jong-un’s younger sister that ruled out any summit with the United States this year, Bolton said there are repeating the same game, adding "North Korea has not come anywhere close to making the strategic decision (to denuclearize)." Bolton also responded to the younger Kim's attack on him ("human scum") with a retort: "I am always honored when I am attacked that way by the North Korea regime."
Bolton who had spent 17 months in the White House until last September, warned that the withdraw or reduction of the US forces in Korea is a "real risk" if Trump is reelected in November. Below is a transcript which has been roughly edited for content and clarity.
―You were mentioned in yesterday's statement by North Korean leader's sister Kim Yo Jong, were you able to read it through?
"I haven't read the whole thing yet, but I was informed that I had been mentioned. And typical of the way they've mentioned me before. So I'm always honored when I'm attacked that way by the North Korean regime."
―What is your take on the statement?
"Well, I don't think there's anything new and if we haven't seen for 30 years or so the fact is North Korea has not come anywhere close to making the strategic decision they need to make to give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons. If there were any indication that Pyongyang had thought about that and had come to that conclusion that then the negotiations would have a chance to succeed. That's what I've always meant by the Libya model of 2003 2004. When Gaddafi looked at what it just happened to Saddam Hussein, and concluded that he wanted to give up Libya's nuclear weapons program which we were able to accomplish. North Korea has exactly the opposite strategic plan. They want to keep nuclear weapons and get relief from economic sanctions. It's easy for North Korea to say they'll give up nuclear weapons. They've done it in writing four or five times by my calculation in the last 30 years. They just never get around to it. Isn't that strange?
―With regard to the Lybian model, Some criticize that your support for it, by making it so public, you had exacerbated the situation with North Korea.
"What's what North Korea says! You know, the argument is that the Gaddafi was overthrown and killed in 2011 during the Arab Spring. That's not the Libya model 2003 2004 unless the critics can name anybody in the world who in 2003 predicted the Arab Spring. The fact is the denuclearization decision was unrelated to the Arab Spring. The point always was, North Korea needed to know that, so that we didn't have what came to be three fruitless summit meetings- that they could play the same tune they had played before, and we were greeted them giving up nuclear weapons."
―Let's go back to the statement. Kim Yo Jung said that she wanted to get a DVD of America's Independence festivities. Are we talking about DVD diplomacy here?
"Well, I don't know what she was watching for in the celebrations. Sure. look, North Korea has is a profoundly important objective for them getting relief from the economic sanctions. And if all that it takes is promising to give up nuclear facilities that are antiquated, unused, unnecessary, to get that relief, they'll do it. I think that's what they were considering doing with YongByon(영변) now and just recent days we've seen amazingly but unsurprisingly, they've got alternative nuclear facilities. This this is the same game plan they've run before.
―There is still that mystery surrounding the Hanoi 'no deal' disaster or debacle. Some sources tell me that Kim Jung Un seemed to be under the impression that YoungByun was enough for the deal during the summit. Do you think he was simply unprepared or was misinformed?
"Well, I think he thought he could put over on the US side the same kind of deal that was accepted by the Clinton administration, that was accepted by the Bush administration, that was certainly considered by the Obama administration. And why not? From North Korea's point of view, it always works or at least it always did before. And that's why I think they hope they can try it again. They criticize Trump's advisors, but they say that mysterious special relationship between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump certainly survives. I think they see him as an easy mark. And I think, particularly in October, if the polls show Trump still behind, what we call the October surprise might be something that Trump would love to do. Now what the North Korean reaction would be? I can't tell, of course. But I think that's what they might have in mind."
―Is there a direct line between Trump and Kim Jong Un? because President Trump always talks about that?
"Well he talks about a lot of things that aren't true."
―So, it is not true that they have a direct (phone) line or that they have a direct number?
"I am not aware of it, I am not aware of it."
―There's been some concern, issues regarding his health. Were you able to observe him, some indication about his health?
"Well, I think all you need to do is look at a picture of him. You can tell he's got a health problem and I think during the Corona virus pandemic, one reason he was isolated from the Korean population was fear that with those underlying health problems, he might be especially vulnerable. It's really up to him obviously how he behaves and what he thinks his own health situation is. But as I say, simply by looking at him, you can tell it's not great."
―So heavy breathing and other indications about his health-were you also able to observe them?
"Well, you could see from just brief walks around the hotels where we were and that sort of thing."
―How significant is his health risk factor then-in terms of, you know, negotiation with North Korea and the Korean Peninsula situation in the future?
"Well, I'm not sure it affects him that much one way or the other. I think he's clearly in charge. He didn't display anything but complete self confidence in his ability to
to dominate decision making in North Korea. There's obviously a lot of speculation about his family members and who would succeeding, you know, you would think we are past the point in human history where there isn't such a thing as hereditary communist dictatorship, but it's still true in North Korea. So the instability of lack of an orderly free succession process, obviously is a continuing threat to stability in that country."
―At a press conference in Hanoi following the 'no deal' summit, President Trump said he had raised the case of US student Otto Warmbier during the summit - and that he didn't believe Kim knew about the mistreatment...and he felt badly about it. Is it true that conversation happened and Kim was aware of the case only after?
"Not not a chance. Look, when you have an American in custody in a country like North Korea, the decisions about his treatment, I think go right to the very top and it tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the nature of the regime in Pyongyang, the way Warmbier was treated for the prank of a college student. And I think that it had a deep effect on Americans. Obviously, the Warmbiers were affected tragically, but I think across America, it told people awful lot about Kim Jong Un and his government."
―So Were you there, when Kim Jong Un finally acknowledged the case of Otto Warmbier, and did he(Kim) apologize?
"It was not an extensive conversation at all. And it really get pursued that way. I think there have been other conversations with North Korean officials, which were much more direct and expressed exactly what the United States felt about the way Warmbier was treated."
―So to clarify, there was no apology from Kim Jong Un.
"Of course not, because he didn't know anything about it! I mean, it's great to live in a world where you can lie about things and have complete confidence that nobody's going to contradict you."
―I want to come back to North Korea, but briefly touched upon the ROKUS alliance. You said during some of the interviews recently that it may be possible for the US for that matter for Trump to consider withdraw or reduction of Korean War in the US forces in Korea before the election? Well, my understanding is there's a legal framework that restricts that kind of measures such as NDAA, can you walk us through your thought process here, how is that possible? And the second question that, it may be easier for the US to consider a reduction in Korea rather than in Japan, US forces in Japan. My understanding is rather the other way around. Could you explain on that more in detail?
"Well, I don't favor any reduction of US forces in Korea or Japan, I was talking about what President Trump thinks. And in terms of legislation that would affect the disposition of American forces the president under the Constitution is the Commander in Chief, and if he decides to abrogate treaties or executive agreements or other agreements between the United States and another country, the President has complete authority to do that Congress cannot restrict that authority constitutionally, which is why the risk of Trump in a second term, deciding to pull out of the NATO alliance, to pull out of the alliance with South Korea with Japan with others is real. And so the question of support for the bases in South Korea, Japan and elsewhere is something I tried to alert the governments of South Korea and Japan to in my last trip to the region, because I didn't want them to think this was just another sort of exercise, that it had to be taken seriously that there had to be some way to work out the differences over the level of support, because otherwise, the risk was real. This was not hypothetical, the risk was real, that Trump could fundamentally restructure the alliances."
―So even the NDAA would not be powerful enough to override his thinking process that undermines….
"It's not powerful enough to override the Constitution. Now, we'd have to look exactly what the provisions say but in terms of abrogating international agreements, Congress does not have a role in that."
―What about your take on that, it maybe easier for the US consider withdrawal or reduction in Korea, then Japan. What's your thought process behind that?
"That's not my thought process. That's Donald Trump's thought process. He thinks it would be …"
―Why is that?
"Because he doesn't understand why we're in Korea to begin with. We've had many, many discussions about the partition of the Korean Peninsula in 1945. But his basic view is we're in South Korea defending South Korea. He doesn't see it as a mutual defense Alliance. He doesn't see it as something that both parties benefit. So in his view, if the US is defending South Korea, South Korea should pay for it."
―And if the current negotiation process, the burden sharing negotiation currently is an impasse -if that doesn't come to any outcome. You're saying the likelihood is higher than ever?
"Well, I don't I wouldn't. I don't know the answer to that. It depends with Donald Trump on what you asked him this morning what you asked him to this afternoon
what you asked him tomorrow. But the underlying feeling that we're defending South Korea, you're not paying for, and we have a big trade deficit with South Korea, in his mind justifies a decision to pull the US forces out. And just to repeat, I felt it was important to underline in South Korea and in Japan, that this feeling by the President was serious, so that they didn't simply dismiss it, and then find later they would suffer the unpleasant consequences."
―You know, maybe that statement is related to my next question here. When you underline that concern, what was the ROK's response? And how do you think that ROK is positioning in the current climate where the US and China are actually virtually clashing on every issues and the US deems China is one of the biggest threats in the world at the moment?
"Well, I think the government of South Korea obviously didn't like the idea of paying more money to support the US forces. But it was an issue that ultimately was going to have to be worked out with Donald Trump. He had some number in mind, less than the initial demand of about 5 billion US dollars, but I didn't know what that number was. And I don't think he did at the time either. He may still not. In terms of dealing with China. You know, again, this is very complex. We're in an election in the United States. China's very unpopular because of the Coronavirus because of the way they've cheated us on trade for decades. And for the threats that they pose in East and Southeast and South Asia.
So for Trump, of course, the rhetoric is tough. Of course, he's going to impose sanctions for the repression of the Uyghurs. But as late as 2018, when he learned that the National Security Council was considering sanction against China for repression of the Uyghurs. He told me to stop, because it would interfere with the trade deal. Once he is elected again in November, if that happens, I think it's entirely possible that the rhetoric could change again, and we'd be back to trying to negotiate the trade deal."
―What do you think the South Korea's position in between China and the US at the moment, where do you think they're positioning in this process?
"Well, I think it's a question that has to be looked at in terms of the threat North Korea poses through its nuclear weapons program. You know, many people in South Korea and in the United States say that North Korea wants nuclear weapons only for defensive purposes. I don't think that's true. I think Kim Jong Un favors reunification of the Korean Peninsula on his terms. And if he has nuclear weapons that can threaten the United States. It strengthens that position he can say to the United States, 'you pull out of South Korea, or you're at risk of our nuclear weapons'. And the wrong kind of American president could do that. As I say, Donald Trump doesn't fully understand why we're still there, after all these years anyway. So when you when you add all this together, it leaves I think, good question of South Korea's real functioning independence for a long time ahead in the balance."
―Do you think the US actually is perhaps maybe willing to negotiate with North Korea under the condition that North Korea is de facto nuclear state? In other words, arms control, rather than fully verifiable denuclearization as the ultimate outcome?
"Okay. Well, I would certainly never agree to that. The North Koreans would sell that nuclear technology and nuclear weapons to anybody with the cash to buy it. They are a threat. They never should have been taken off the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. And I think ultimately the only way Northeast Asia is going to be safe is when the Korean Peninsula is reunited under a government like the one in South Korea now, and the nuclear weapons are eliminated if we can concede to North Korea nuclear weapons status. I think it's only a matter of time before Japan gets nuclear weapons. And tensions in the region will continue to grow. That's why you should oppose the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Don't accept it in North Korea, don't accept it in Iran don't accept it anywhere."
―Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently with regard to North Korea negotiation if you were to go back to the White House?
"Well, it I'm not sure I would have changed anything. Trump wanted to meet with Kim Jong Un I thought it was a mistake. He announced that just as it turned out a few weeks before I became now National Security Adviser and as I explained in the book that was almost enough to make me wonder whether I should take the job in the first place. It was a big mistake to hold those three summits with Kim Jong Un. How do we know that? A few weeks ago North Korea blew up the building that had constructed for liaison talks with South Korea. And we see from satellite imagery, that satellite imagery that's commercially available, it's not from intelligence sources, that they're building likely new nuclear weapons related facilities. This regime has lied through its teeth, its entire history, and it remains determined to get nuclear weapons."
―But there is a criticism against you-- regarding perhaps your assertion for the preemptive strike. The meeting in December of 2017 in your book, you talked about preemptive strike, according to you, which can be possible. But many people actually criticize you for eliminating the China factor- that you were just simply opting for the military strike from technical point of view, how would you respond to that?
"That they should read the articles I've written for more than 20 years about how to deal with North Korea. The fact is, and I quote in my book the statement of the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, who said, obviously, the risk of military force on the peninsula is real, he said, and this is I think you should take note of this, he said, it would be unimaginable for him that an American city would be threatened by North Korean nuclear weapons and that is unimaginable. That's why people need to take the threat of North Korea seriously, and for close to 30 years, people have not taken it seriously enough."
―What about this criticism that no other former US NSC advisors has written a book against a sitting president. Your colleague, former colleague, Secretary Mike Pompeo also said that you are a 'trader' how would you respond to those who harshly criticize your motivation and the book?
"Well, I think former decision makers really have an obligation to inform the American people how it happens. Now in terms of writing a book, Sarah Sanders, Trump's former press secretary has a book coming out in September, Sean Spicer, the first press secretary has had a book that has come out Matt Whittaker, the acting Attorney General, has had a book that has come out in the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton had a book that came out during Obama's term. Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense had a book that came out during Obama's term. It happens all the time." ―What is your take on ROK's policy on North Korea?
"South Korea is divided politically over how to deal with North Korea. I think the Sunshine policy over a long period of time has been proven to be a failure. The North Korean regime, I think is very unstable. I think that has enormous risks for South Korea, but it also has enormous opportunities. And I say, again, US policy should be the reunification of the peninsula along the lines of South Korea absorbing North Korea. I think that can be sold to China. I don't think it's an easy task. But the division of the peninsula is unnatural. It's obviously unacceptable to reunite on North Korean terms, but reuniting in a free and open society in Korea, I think is in the advantage of all Koreans."
―This question is related to your recent interview with VOA. You said that the North Korean leadership may not be as strong as you think. You also said and Kim Jong Un seems to be under potentially under some pressure or in a very delicate position. Could you explain more on that, Do you think there's a power friction, potentially? division within?
"I think North Korea is a 25 million person prison camp. I think that's always inherently unstable. And I think we don't really have a complete understanding how the corona virus has affected the circumstances inside North Korea. I think we know from defectors that the people in the North are more aware of events in the outside world than the North Korean regime would like them to know. And it's why I think a stronger view from South Korea, these are fellow Koreans who are being repressed crushed by this regime. And to allow it to go on really is something that should be on all of our consciences."
―What was your impression of Kim Yo Jong when you met her in person.
"Well, she didn't say much in public between the two delegations, but she was certainly very present. That's for sure."
―(Against this backdrop) Do you think there could potentially be some role for someone like Ivanka Trump in dealing with North Korea. There was a lot of comparison between her and Ivanka during their PyungChang Winter Olympics visit to Korea.
"America is NOT a hereditary monarchy."
-Ok, thank you for your time, and I look forward to the next opportunity.
By Jungahn Kim·Washington correspondent