John Bolton Worries That Diplomacy With North Korea Undermines Prospects For Iran War

March 08, 2012 4:54 pm ET — Walid Zafar

John Bolton

Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton doesn't agree with the Obama administration's fruitful diplomatic outreach with North Korea. In particular, he worries that a road towards détente with the authoritarian Democratic People's Republic of Korea — another Obama foreign policy breakthrough — will undermine the "bomb Iran" consensus Bolton has been trying to build. In his editorial in the Wall Street Journal, the former high-ranking Bush administration official criticizes diplomacy with the new government of the DPRK on the grounds that it will embolden the regime in Iran.

Unfortunately, the Leap Day deal is worse than just another failed effort to chitchat North Korea out of its nuclear weapons. It provides a political and economic lifeline to Kim Jong Eun's uncertain new regime, and it schools him on how to outwit America. Tehran's mullahs will take careful note of the Obama administration's desperation to announce a deal, any deal, that can be described as "progress" on the nuclear-proliferation front.


Most objectionable morally, despite U.S. denials of a quid pro quo: We are providing 240,000 tons of food aid that will almost certainly be diverted to the DPRK military and other favored recipients. It is a strict canon of U.S. humanitarian assistance that such aid be closely monitored, but there is no reason to believe that monitoring will be any more effective than in the past. Make no mistake, we are simply feeding young Kim's dictatorship.


The critical elements of the Leap Day deal are available for Tehran to use to its advantage: unverifiable moratoria, the resumption of long-failed negotiations that will buy it time, and the expectation of reduced economic pressure. Iran can even count on Mr. Obama to try to restrain Israel, its strongest and most determined regional opponent.

What does Bolton suggest we do instead? He has plenty of criticisms, but offers few suggestions on what he would do differently. He writes, for instance, that we should "concentrate on finding ways to exploit the North's leadership transition in order to hasten Korean reunification." How does Bolton know that we aren't already doing that? Would we not also, at the same time, be trying to reduce the nuclear threat from Pyongyang? And is it not possible that the diplomatic route is also aimed at dividing the new government?

Instead, Bolton just complains.

The deal Bolton is against prioritizes the safeguarding of nuclear material, which is always a good thing. The less nuclear research that is completed and the fewer tests rogue regimes like North Korea engage in, the safer we all are. As Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association explained following the announcement of new talks, "it is essential that North Korea's nuclear program remain as limited as possible."

No one, particularly not the White House, is under the illusion that these talks will mean that North Koreans will halt their entire nuclear program or dismantle existing nuclear weapons. It doesn't work that way, which is one of the reasons why the Bush administration was largely ineffective in containing North Korea's program, and why the hawkish "all-or-nothing" approach to diplomacy has produced little in the past decade.

The real story here isn't that Bolton disagrees with the president's policy in North Korea, it's that hawks like Bolton don't want diplomacy with North Korea because it weakens the prospects of a disastrous war with Iran — a war which would at most delay the nuclear program by a few years, and convince the Iranians that they need a nuclear deterrent.

In his eagerness for war with Iran, Bolton prefers to continue the Bush administration's failed policy toward North Korea. Mike Chinoy, a senior fellow at the U.S.-China Institute has written that "U.S. sanctions, coercion, and a refusal to engage in bilateral dialogue were key factors in the North's decision to stage its first nuclear test," which happened during Bush's second term. Bolton's message is clear: Don't engage in diplomacy with a nuclear-armed country lest it somehow advantage another country which does not have a nuclear weapon (and had not made the decision to develop one, according to U.S. intelligence estimates). That's really not a good model for keeping us safe.

"In dealing with North Korea," Chinoy explains, "dialogue and negotiations—however difficult and uncertain—offer a far better chance of managing what remains one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints."

The same is true of Iran.