U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, known as one of the most hawkish officials in the Trump administration, has said that Washington would roll back crushing sanctions on North Korea if the U.S. sees “a significant sign” of steps toward denuclearization.
Bolton alluded to the possibility of easing the tough measures in an interview Friday with The Washington Times. The comment marks a stunning reversal for Bolton, who in February last year called for preemptively bombing North Korea.
“President Trump … has said repeatedly that North Korea has not engaged in nuclear tests,” he said when asked about progress on the issue. “North Korea has not engaged in missile tests. What we need from North Korea is a significant sign of a strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons and it is when we get that denuclearization that the President can begin to take the sanctions off.”
Bolton did not specify if he was speaking of international sanctions or the United States’ unilateral measures.
Still, any decision to relax sanctions as an intermediary step toward the North relinquishing its nuclear arsenal would be a step backward from its current policy of seeking the “final, fully verified denuclearization” of the country before any rewards are doled out.
U.S.-North Korea denuclearization talks had been stalled for months after the landmark summit in Singapore between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June. But recent remarks by Kim and Trump, as well as a visit to Washington by the North Korean leader’s right-hand man earlier this month, have injected fresh momentum into the negotiations and a second Kim-Trump summit scheduled for the end of February.
Experts say the U.S. could put aside its hard-line denuclearization-first stance in exchange for an interim agreement well short of complete disarmament. The U.S. has reportedly demanded an inventory of the North Korean arsenal, a request Pyongyang has brushed away. Instead, the U.S. could accept a North Korean offer to shutter the reactor at its Nyongbyon nuclear complex in exchange for specifically targeted sanctions relief.
In a New Year’s address, Kim urged the United States to take reciprocal measures in exchange for denuclearization steps the North Korean dictator has claimed his country has taken since last year. State-run media has echoed this sentiment, urging corresponding, step-by-step measures, including sanctions relief, as Kim seeks to follow through on a pledge to shift his focus from nuclear weapons to rebuilding his country’s economy.
A “peace declaration” ending the 1950-53 Korean war could also be one measure on the table. Such a declaration could pave the way for a formal peace treaty and could involve security guarantees the North craves.
Kim on Thursday was quoted by state media as praising Trump’s “unusual determination” to secure a second summit, saying the North Korean leader plans to “believe in the positive way of thinking of President Trump, wait with patience and good faith and, together with the U.S., advance step by step toward the goal to be reached by the two countries.”
But despite this praise, Bolton, delivered a stern warning in Friday’s interview to the young North Korean leader.
“The negotiation really is between the President and Kim Jong Un,” Bolton said. “He is prepared to engage in this negotiation. If I was Kim Jong Un, I would not think of crossing the president.”