The appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser completes what some experts are calling a “war cabinet” of military hawks surrounding President Donald Trump, a move that will raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula before a planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Bolton has long advocated for the use of military intervention to solve the crisis on the Korean Peninsula, a belief that lead Pyongyang to call him “human scum and a bloodsucker” in 2003.
As recently as last month, Bolton dismissed the use of continued diplomatic efforts to bring about peace in the region in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. Instead, he advocated for three drastic measures: a strike against the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear facilities, a strike against a test missile prior to launch, or the assassination of Kim Jong Un followed by an invasion.
All these options, Bolton readily admits, would cause collateral damage for South Korea.
“All these scenarios pose dangers for South Korea, especially civilians in Seoul, which is within the range of North Korean artillery near the Demilitarized Zone,” he wrote. “Any military attack must therefore neutralize as much of the North’s retaliatory capability as possible together with the larger strike.”
Bolton’s appointment comes as tensions have eased dramatically in recent weeks, after a flurry of diplomatic breakthroughs on the Peninsula. North and South Korean athletes marched together during the Winter Olympics, and Trump even agreed to meet Kim Jong Un face to face at a summit planned for May, making him the first U.S. president to accept Pyongyang's invitation.
But Bolton’s appointment, which comes after several recent shake-ups at the highest level of Trump's administration, could jeopardize whatever progress has been made in recent months, analysts warn.
“I think that Bolton's appointment brings us one step closer to a serious conflict,” said Robert Kelly, an expert in international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea.
Kelly said Bolton's appointment shouldn't be viewed on its own but in the context of Trump's already hawkish Cabinet. Bolton joins Trump’s team alongside Mike Pompeo, who replaced former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just weeks ago, and several other top officials who share a more confrontational worldview.
"You’ve got basically hawks all around the president now,” said Robert Kelly, an expert in international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea. “I am concerned that we are moving closer to a war Cabinet, for lack of a better word. Pence is a hawk. Nikki Haley is a hawk. Pompeo is a hawk, and so is Bolton.”
Still others questioned how effective Bolton will be in Trump's chaotic administration.
“I actually don’t think Bolton will be all that effective in the job,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute. “Maybe he’s just a malign presence screaming on TV," he said, before adding a note of caution. "Then we have to worry about the kind of stuff he’s whispering in the president’s ear.”
Reaction in Seoul was mixed Friday in the wake of the news, though Kelly warned that Koreans may not understand the significance of Bolton’s appointment.
The president’s office in Seoul looked for a silver lining: “Bolton has much knowledge on the issues regarding the Korean Peninsula, and most of all, we know him to be one of the U.S. president’s aides who is trusted,” a spokesman said.
However, conservative lawmaker Kim Hack Yong, who is head of the national defense committee in the South Korean Parliament, called the appointment “worrisome.”
“North Korea and the United States need to have dialogue, but this only fuels worries over whether the talks will ever happen,” he said.
In addition to advocating for a military strike against North Korea, Bolton has repeatedly said he believes China can be coerced into “either overthrowing the regime” or “merging the two Koreas effectively under South Korea’s control.” But that’s simply not in China’s interests, according to Adam Mount, an expert on U.S. nuclear strategy and the director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
“It is surreal and frankly irrational to imagine Beijing, with U.S. forces on their doorstep, deciding to invade DPRK, then handing it over,” Mount said.
This sentiment was echoed elsewhere in Asia on Friday. In Japan, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said he was “a bit surprised” by the appointment but didn't anticipate any major changes in U.S. policy on North Korea.
Further afield, in Russia, when asked if Bolton's appointment was a good idea, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, “That is not a question for us; it is for the U.S. administration.” Peskov added that he hoped there would be more people in the White House who “can see beyond the wave of Russophobia.”
Whatever the rest of the world thinks, the significance of Bolton's appointment will likely first be felt in Korea, and in particular in relation to the upcoming summits.
Bolton previously said he thinks the negotiations will be short-lived.
“I think this session between the two leaders could well be a fairly brief session where Trump says, ‘Tell me you have begun total denuclearization, 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 earlier this month.
While Bolton may not try to derail the talks, he could use them as leverage to push for more drastic action.
"Bolton could be strategically thinking two or three steps ahead. It could be argued that [Bolton] knows the talks are not going to work," Kelly said, adding Bolton could then ”use a failed summit … to market a conflict or an airstrike to Trump on those grounds."
Alan Mendoza, executive director of the neo-conservative British foreign policy think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, believes that Bolton’s appointment will work in the U.S.’s favor during the talks by ensuring North Korea knows all options are still on the table.
“[The appointment] is more a message to North Korea than South Korea that the U.S. is serious about solving this issue, and will take any and all means necessary if sanctions and negotiations fail to avert a fully armed nuclear state,” Mendoza told VICE News.
But as Mount points out, if Trump gives in to Bolton’s instincts, the talks could instead lead to disaster.
“It’s hard to overstate how extremist this view is. While there are other commentators that want limited strikes, I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone who openly condones invasion,” Mount said. “It would almost certainly lead to nuclear use and the deaths of millions.”
Cover image: South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, right, shakes hands with U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton during their meeting at the foreign ministry in Seoul, Tuesday, July 20, 2004. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)