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Trump-Kim Summit

North Korea summit makes Bolton and top Abe aide strange bedfellows

Trump's national security adviser shares Tokyo's distrust of Pyongyang

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks with national security adviser John Bolton prior to a joint news conference between President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Standing in the halls of the White House on Thursday, the tall, bespectacled national security adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe waited quietly for his boss' meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump to begin.

Shotaro Yachi, one of Abe's most trusted aides, came to Washington this week with a crucial mission: convey Tokyo's deep misgivings about the upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit to his famously hawkish American counterpart, John Bolton.

A day earlier, Yachi had met Bolton, who shares similar concerns about Trump's unbridled enthusiasm for meeting with Kim Jong Un.

In Thursday's leaders' meeting, Trump and Abe discussed strategy for the summit. For North Korea and other countries closely following developments, however, the Bolton-Yachi meeting may have carried more weight.

The unpredictable president abruptly canceled the summit with Kim, only to quickly resurrect it. Japan is concerned about Trump giving Kim a global platform without a definitive commitment to complete, verifiable and irreversible nuclear dismantlement.

But at Thursday's meeting, Abe had to tread a fine line, nudging Trump to keep up the pressure and bring up the subject of North Korea's past abductions of Japanese nationals.

Japan's National Security Adviser Shotaro Yachi is a veteran diplomat.

Instead, Yachi was given the task of conveying Japan's grievances to Bolton. The Japanese national security adviser likely reiterated that the pressure campaign must be maintained and that without it there will be no progress on the North Korea issue.

North Korea is concerned about the Yachi-Bolton meeting precisely because this message likely resonates with Bolton.

Bolton served as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs during the administration of George W. Bush and was named the American ambassador to the United Nations in 2005. A famous neoconservative espousing a hawkish brand of foreign policy, Bolton was a key advocate of the Iraq War. He often faced the wrath of North Korea when he made tough statements toward the regime in Pyongyang. 

Bolton does not view Kim's pledge to denuclearize as even remotely credible. It would be "perfectly legitimate" for the U.S. to launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, Bolton wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece this February, weeks before he started in his current job. He is also thought to have had a hand in Trump's temporary cancellation of the summit last month.

Tokyo is on the same page as Bolton in distrusting Pyongyang. "North Korea has many experts well-versed in past negotiations for the summit, and their team is far superior to that of the U.S.," a senior Japanese official said.

Trump is fully enjoying the spotlight with an eye on the Nobel Peace Prize. Kim could exploit the American president's desire for a successful meeting and extract promises of economic aid and security guarantees with only a vague promise to denuclearize in return.

Japan wants to avert such a scenario. U.S. media report that Bolton will be in Singapore for next Tuesday's meeting despite his reported feuding behind the scenes with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a central organizer of the summit.

Abe will speak with Trump after the summit, and Yachi will try reaching out to Bolton. Yachi and Bolton together constitute Japan's channel of communication.

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