Bolton: US Should Confront China on North Korea

A former White House national security adviser said the Biden administration should call on China to act to show that it is serious about denuclearizing North Korea and that Washington’s options for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are running out fast.

“For too many years, we have let China get away with responsibility for North Korea,” said John Bolton, the national security adviser to former President Donald Trump from April 2018 to September 2019. “As part of the realignment of American policy toward Beijing … China’s responsibility for North Korea has to be put at the center.”

Bolton said during an interview with VOA’s Korean Service on Friday that the Biden administration’s options for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs are “small and decreasing rapidly” as the regime’s “immediate threat” of intermediate-range ballistic missiles is “present right now.”

North Korea tested 11 missiles in January, concluding the month with an intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. territory of Guam.

Denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled since October 2019.

Washington has been expressing its openness to meet with Pyongyang without preconditions, but North Korea has largely dismissed the calls for talks.

Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at the research and analysis organization CNA, said one option Washington has right now is to “try to freeze” North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.

“Denuclearization is a bridge too far right now,” Gause said. “A wiser thing to do is to try to put things on the table in return for a freeze — no provocations, no proliferation, and no tests.”

China key to denuclearization

Bolton said the threat of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons proliferation “is increasing day by day” and suggested the Biden administration needs to ensure China takes action to back up statements that it does not want a nuclear North Korea.

“China has masqueraded for 30 years as just another disinterested party that says it doesn’t want North Korea to have nuclear weapons. Well, if it were serious, it could make that happen,” Bolton said.

“I think it’s important to the world that we put China to the proof on this – either you do what you alone have the capability of doing, which is changing the regime behavior in North Korea, or we draw the conclusion, the legitimate conclusion, that you’re fine with North Korea having a nuclear weapon,” he added.

China, North Korea’s top trading partner, has often been accused of helping Pyongyang evade U.N. sanctions placed on North Korea in 2016 to curb its nuclear and missile programs.

China and Russia, permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, have long called for sanctions relief on North Korea. Most recently, on Jan. 20, Beijing and Moscow delayed Washington’s effort to impose U.N. sanctions on North Korea after the regime’s fourth missile test of the month.

Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told VOA’s Korean Service on Friday evening that “China’s position on the Korean Peninsula issue is consistent and clear. We hope relevant sides will resolve respective concerns through dialogue and consultation.”

He continued, saying “China has always been seriously implementing U.N. Security Council resolutions concerning DPRK. As long as the resolutions are still effective, we will earnestly fulfill our international responsibilities and deal with relevant matters according to the resolutions.”

Bolton said North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons and missile programs through negotiations, adding that the U.S. should not rule out considering the possibility of a regime change or the use of force as an option.

“The U.S. should not be held hostage by a regime like this,” Bolton said. “That’s why possibilities for regime change or if necessary, use of force against the North Korean nuclear program cannot be ruled out.”

VOA’s Korean Service contacted North Korea’s U.N. Mission for comment on Bolton’s remarks but did not receive a reply.

Other options

Other experts believe the U.S. should pursue a diplomatic solution.

Gary Samore, former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction during the Obama administration, said Washington should seek a deal with Pyongyang through negotiations, although he admits “denuclearization is not possible for the foreseeable future.”

“I expect the U.S. will seek to limit North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in exchange for political and economic steps, such as sanctions relief,” he said.

The Biden administration says it remains committed to diplomacy with North Korea.

“The United States holds no hostile intent towards the DPRK and we are open to meeting the DPRK without preconditions,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA’s Korean Service on Thursday. DPRK represents North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Liu, the Chinese Embassy spokesperson, said “If the U.S. truly cares about the well-being of the DPRK people, it should not keep pressuring the DPRK with sanctions. Instead, it should face up to the denuclearization measures already taken by the DPRK, respond to its legitimate and reasonable concerns and take measures to ease sanctions on the DPRK.”

Bolton expressed skepticism about an idea floated by some North Korea watchers that the Biden administration should try Trump-style personal diplomacy or high-level engagement to reengage North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into denuclearization talks.

Bolton was present at the two summits that Trump held with Kim, first in Singapore in June 2018 and then in Hanoi in February 2019.

“They gave cover for North Korea systemically to make additional progress on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs under the appearance that they were trying to work out an arrangement with President Trump,” he said. 

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