Bolton's White House exit signals new hope for US-North Korea talks despite summer of missile tests

Nicola Smith
John Bolton, far left, was blamed in part for the collapse of the Hanoi summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un - REUTERS

The apparent firing of US National Security Adviser John Bolton has boosted the chances of fresh nuclear talks with North Korea, despite its summer of missile tests.

The departure of Mr Bolton, who has long been furiously criticised by Pyongyang for his hawkish views, comes amid months of stalled diplomacy over the dismantlement of Kim Jong-un’s nuclear and missiles programmes.  

It also follows a series of North Korean tests of short-range ballistic missiles and a multiple rocket launcher system that has stymied Mr Trump’s ongoing attempts to revive working-level negotiations since May.  

On Wednesday, the president announced by tweet that Mr Bolton’s services were “no longer needed,” citing strong disagreements with many of his suggestions. Mr Bolton immediately tweeted back, implying that he had first “offered to resign”.

His awkward exit came shortly after an unexpected olive branch from North Korea that it may be willing to resume talks in late September if the US alters its approach “based on a calculation acceptable to us”.

Kim Jong-un inspects the testing of a multiple rocket launcher system in September Credit: KCNA via KNS/AP

Mr Trump has since publicly castigated Mr Bolton for blocking progress with Pyongyang, telling reporters that he “set back” diplomatic outreach by suggesting a nuclear deal should follow the so-called “Libyan model”.

In 2004, Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s strongman, agreed to hand over his nuclear programme to the US. He was then killed in 2011 and the country has been in turmoil ever since. 

“I don’t blame Kim Jong-un,” Mr Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “He wanted nothing to do with John Bolton. And that’s not a question of being tough; that’s a question of being not smart, to say something like that.” 

The changes at the White House now give the president leverage to start afresh with North Korea, said Vipin Narang, a security studies professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

“When Bolton got fired that raised an opportunity to say that the hold-up was all Bolton and now I’m ready. There is an opportunity to reset in ways that may actually get the North Koreans to sit down,” he said. 

The timing of North Korea’s announcement has raised speculation that the relaunching of talks could coincide with the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 22-26. 

Mr Trump is expected to hold a summit on the margins of the assembly with Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, it was revealed on Friday. 

With Mr Bolton out of the picture, the president also appears to be considering easing sanctions on Iran to meet at the UN with its leader President Hassan Rouhani. “We’ll see what happens,” said Mr Trump. His former NSA had opposed such a step.  

President Trump wants to clinch a nuclear deal with North Korea ahead of the US elections Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP

Keen to keep negotiations with North Korea on track, the US president has repeatedly played down the significance of Kim’s weapons tests, describing them as “small” and insisting that the North Korean leader has not breached his pledge to enforce a moratorium on long-range missiles. 

But nuclear experts have warned that the importance of North Korea’s technological advances this summer should not be underestimated. 

Important progress on solid fuel technology and manoeuvrability in short-range weapons systems could be transferred to longer-range missiles at a later date, cautioned Mr Narang. “They are getting comfortable with development and operationalisation.”

While Mr Bolton’s retreat is a positive sign for resuming talks, analysts have warned that it will be no easier to reach an agreement with Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. 

“Getting to such a deal in itself will be a long slog. My hope is that Steve Biegun [US North Korea envoy] can meet his North Korean counterparts and at least start this process in a serious way before the year ends,” said Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.