Hats off to whoever thought of sending John Bolton to Mongolia while President Donald Trump flew to the G-20 in Japan and met shortly after with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. If the dispatcher is as witty as I think he or she might be, it’s a clear sign that Bolton’s days as national security adviser are numbered.
Surely Bolton, who knows history, gets the reference. He no doubt recalls that, in 1957, as part of his campaign to rid his inner circle of Stalinist remnants, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev banished the longtime foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov—executioner of some of the late Josef Stalin’s most savage diplomatic maneuvers—to the post of ambassador to Outer Mongolia.
Ever since, in the lexicon of power politics, sending rivals or unwieldy subordinates to Mongolia has been a metaphor for consigning them to oblivion. In Bolton’s case, it’s been given a blatantly literal spin. The fact that Trump’s daughter Ivanka and even Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson escorted the president across the Demilitarized Zone, while the national security adviser was marooned on the terrestrial equivalent of the dark side of the moon, highlights the pink slip in neon.
When Trump brought Bolton onboard in March 2018, hiring him to replace the departing H.R. McMaster, I wrote that it was “time to push the panic button.” As one of the original neocons, and more recently as a Fox News commentator, Bolton had advocated forcible regime change in Iran and North Korea; Trump, a regular Fox viewer, was clearly aware of his views; and so it seemed we’d soon be off to war.
Since then, Trump has changed his tune. He has reportedly griped to friends that Bolton is pushing him onto a path toward war (conveniently ignoring the fact that Trump himself paved the path). He has sent messages to the Iranians that he wants to reopen negotiations, though neither he nor any of his advisers has the slightest idea how to do that. And he believes his deep friendship with Kim will, ipso facto, cement a peace deal on the Korean Peninsula.
This is the context of his Sunday handshake with Kim at the Demilitarized Zone, followed by a stroll across the border—the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in North Korea—and a brief meeting inside the truce room on the south side of the line. Trump seems to think that crossing the border was itself a big deal (“an honor,” he exclaimed), and many commentators agreed (“historic,” the headlines blared).
The huzzahs might be appropriate, if Trump and Kim hadn’t already met at two formal summits, the first of which produced nothing and the second less than that. Let’s wait to see what happens at the third before scrawling new chapters on the tablets of history.
The New York Times reported on Sunday that officials inside the Trump administration (it isn’t clear who) are “weighing a new approach” to arms talks, settling simply for a “freeze” in North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, at least as a “first step,” rather than demanding full “denuclearization” from the get-go. In the story’s caveat section, Stephen Biegun, Trump’s emissary to North Korea, is quoted as calling the account “pure speculation” and saying that his team is “not preparing any new proposal currently.”
Still, it is plausible that—given his affection for Kim and, more pertinent, his desire for a diplomatic triumph before the election—Trump might relax the terms for an acceptable accord. And this is where Bolton’s mission to Mongolia comes in.
From the outset of its peace overture in early 2018, North Korea has favored a step-by-step process of arms control—they disarm a little while we lift economic sanctions a little, then both sides do a little more, and on it goes. By contrast, Bolton has insisted on a “big bang” solution, with North Korea undertaking “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” before the United States lifts sanctions at all. Trump may now be aware—as some Korea specialists have been saying all along—that step by step is the only way to get anywhere, and to do that, Bolton must go.
A freeze on all aspects of North Korea’s nuclear program isn’t a bad idea; in fact, it’s a prerequisite to step-by-step reductions. But the mere declaration of a freeze is a hollow gesture unless the North Koreans also provide a full and itemized list of what they currently possess—how many missiles, how many warheads, how much fissile material, where all this stuff is—and open up their facilities to inspection. (The Iranians did this in the 2015 nuclear deal, which Trump abrogated soon after entering office.)
The problem is the North Koreans have never agreed to submit such a list. If Trump can get Kim to do this, and to let inspectors verify its accuracy, we will look back on Sunday’s stroll across the DMZ as a truly historic moment. If not, it will be recognized, and soon forgotten, as a bit of theater staged for Kim’s domestic glorification and Trump’s reelection campaign.