Once rejected by North Korea as “human scum,” US President Donald Trump’s latest pick for national security adviser has called for regime change in North Korea, prompting worries in Asia ahead of a historic summit between Washington and Pyongyang.
Trump announced in a tweet he was replacing US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster with John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN who has advocated the use of military force against North Korea and Iran and has previously been rejected as a negotiating partner by Pyongyang.
“This is worrisome news,” said Kim Hack-yong, conservative South Korean lawmaker and head of the Defence Committee of the Korean National Assembly.
“North Korea and the United States need to have dialogue, but this only fuels worries over whether the talks will ever happen,” Kim said.
At Seoul’s presidential Blue House, which has been forced to navigate between the unpredictable personalities of leaders in both Pyongyang and Washington, officials were circumspect.
“Our stance is that if a new road opens, we have to go that path,” a senior Blue House official told reporters. “Bolton has much knowledge on the issues regarding the Korean Peninsula and most of all, we know him to be one of the US president’s aides who is trusted.”
South Korean National Security Planning Director Chung Eui-yong had not yet spoken with Bolton, the official said, adding that Chung’s reaction to McMaster’s dismissal was “not bad.”
Another administrative official in Seoul expressed regret over the loss of camaraderie McMaster had built with his South Korean counterpart as they had tackled North Korea’s nuclear issue together.
Both officials requested not to be named.
Bolton had described Trump’s plan to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “diplomatic shock and awe” and said it would be an opportunity to deliver a threat of military action.
“I think this session between the two leaders could well be a fairly brief session where Trump says: ‘Tell me you have begun total denuclearisation, because we’re not going to have protracted negotiations. You can tell me right now or we’ll start thinking of something else,’” he told Washington’s WMAL radio station.
Former South Korean intelligence official Nam Sung-wook said Trump might not even get the opportunity to deliver that message.
“Bolton being tapped for this position makes for a very difficult situation where the US-North Korea summit may not even happen,” he said. “It’s going to be a rocky path even before the summit.”
The meeting is supposed to happen by the end of May, but an exact time and place have yet to be settled on.
Pyongyang had no immediate comment about Bolton, whose criticism of then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and Pyongyang’s human rights record in 2003 spurred state media to call him “human scum and bloodsucker.”
North Korean officials would not recognize him as a representative of the US government or talk with him because of his “political vulgarity and psychopathological condition,” state media said at the time.
Bolton’s appointment came 10 days after Trump fired US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, another moderating influence, replacing him with CIA director Mike Pompeo.
His appointment will further diminish hope for China and the US to see eye-to-eye on security issues, said Shi Yinhong (時殷弘), who heads the Center for American Studies at Beijing’s Renmin University.
“What security cooperation with China can there be? Nuclear weapons, North Korea, Taiwan, South China Sea, cyberspace … Where is there hope for cooperation?” Shi said.
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