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International relations

Bolton says North Korea removed abductee issue from joint statement

Former adviser talked Trump out of end-of-war declaration with Kim

John Bolton's new memoir at a Barnes & Noble bookstore on New York City's Upper West Side. "It's selling well. Every other book we've sold today is this one," an employee said. (Photo by Ken Moriyasu)

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration sought to add the Japanese-abductee issue to a joint statement between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June 2018, but they had to settle on a "short statement" after stalled negotiations.

These were some of the revelations in a memoir by Trump's former national security adviser, John Bolton, published Tuesday.

According to "The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir," Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were going over the proposed draft of the statement ahead of the summit in Singapore. "After going back and forth for a while, we agreed we would insist on including references to our notion of denuclearization and Security Council Resolution 1718 (requiring North Korea not to conduct nuclear tests or ballistic-missile launches), adding new paragraphs on the Japanese-abductee issue, and pledging the return of US Korean War remains," he wrote. 

Bolton said he was woken up hours later, at 1 a.m., by an aide who informed him that "negotiations had stalled, no surprise."

The next morning Trump "declared himself satisfied with the 'short statement' that we had come up with," Bolton wrote.  

The book provides a behind-the-scenes look at the three meetings between Trump and Kim Jong Un, in which Bolton was deeply involved during his year and a half in the role.

Bolton wrote that in a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Mar-a-Lago resort in April 2018, and in later meetings, "Trump committed to pursuing [the abductee] issue and followed through faithfully in every subsequent encounter with Kim Jong Un."

The idea of a declaration officially ending the Korean War, which was halted with a 1953 armistice, was also raised ahead of the Singpore summit. Seeing that Trump was receptive to this, Bolton and Pompeo worked frantically to convince the president that North Korea's denuclearization must come first, Bolton wrote. 

Bolton initially thought the proposal came from North Korea, but later began to suspect it had come from South Korean President Moon Jae-in, "emanating from and supporting his reunification agenda," he wrote.

"Substantively, the 'end of war' idea had no rationale except that it sounded good," Bolton wrote, adding that "with the possibility nothing much else would emerge in Singapore, we risked legitimizing Kim Jong Un" by suggesting that Pyongyang was no longer dangerous.

In a post publication interview with the Washington Post on Tuesday, Bolton was agnostic about Trump's prospects of working closer with Kim and other authoritarian leaders should he get a second term.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during a meeting at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Panmunjom, South Korea, on June 30, 2019.   © Reuters

"Part of the problem describing what happens in Trump administration foreign policy is that what seems to be decided on day one is sometimes reversed on day two," the former national security adviser said in the livestreamed interview.

Bolton also said he cannot be "certain" of a peaceful transfer of power if Trump is defeated in the November presidential election, something that Republicans should be "careful" of.

"Carrying the albatross of this administration around necks any longer than necessary is going to cause great harm to the country," he said.

In the book, Bolton claimed the whole "diplomatic fandango" involving the summit was South Korea's idea and that his South Korean counterpart, Chung Eui-yong, had acknowledged that it was him who had initially proposed the summit to North Korea.

The memoir contrasted what Bolton saw as Seoul's excessive optimism on denuclearization -- with Moon saying that April that Kim had agreed to denuclearize within a year -- with the more skeptical view of Abe, who warned Trump against trusting Kim.

Bolton said he advised Trump in early June that neither an end-of-war declaration nor sanctions relief should come before complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. He and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo scrambled to keep the president from agreeing to end the war too readily, pushing for concessions in exchange such as a declaration of the North's nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. Ultimately, no such deal was reached.

In the run-up to the second summit in Hanoi in February 2019, Bolton showed Trump footage of former President Ronald Reagan discussing his 1986 summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, hoping the president would glean lessons from past examples. 

It showed Reagan getting up to leave without reaching a nuclear arsenal reduction deal with his counterpart.

This managed to convince Trump that he did not need to be rushed and could just walk away from the meeting, according to Bolton.

During the summit, Kim sought a full lifting of sanctions in exchange for dismantling the North's Yongbyon nuclear complex. When Trump asked for further concessions in hopes of a big deal, Kim apparently looked visibly irritated.

The president said accepting Kim's proposal would have a huge political impact in the U.S. and could lose him the next presidential election, and ultimately walked away, Bolton wrote, adding that he was worried about Trump giving concessions until the very end. 

Both Trump and Seoul have contested the details in the memoir. Trump has repeatedly accused Bolton of lying, while Chung said Monday that the book "does not reflect accurate facts, and the truth is being distorted in large portions."

The Trump administration last week had sought to prevent the book from being widely distributed on the grounds that it contained classified information, but a judge denied the request on Saturday.

Additional reporting by Alex Fang in New York.

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