Commentary / Japan

Washington, Seoul and Bolton’s bombshell memoir

On June 24, South Korea and the United States commemorated the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. The two nations’ defense chiefs reaffirmed their commitment to the bilateral alliance, which “is built on mutual trust and shared values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.”

This noble spirit of the security alliance, as depicted in former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton’s bombshell tell-all memoir just published the day before, may no longer exist. In his new book, Bolton harshly criticized South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to denuclearize North Korea as “nonsense” and “schizophrenic.”

No wonder South Korean officials were furious. Chung Eui-yong, Bolton’s counterpart in Seoul, reportedly said that “a considerable portion of it is distorted.” He also described the book as Bolton’s “own viewpoint,” not “accurate facts,” and a violation of the basic principle of diplomacy based on mutual trust.

As a former Japanese diplomat, I fully echo Chung’s concerns. Difficult negotiations involve secrets. Diplomats will not disclose details of their exchanges or interactions because it could undermine the outcome of negotiations. In that sense Bolton was just an ideologue, not a diplomat.

Still, the criticism in Seoul that “America’s neocon is in cahoots with Japan, hindering inter-Korean reconciliation” is equally appalling. Seen from Tokyo, the government of South Korea looks as responsible as Bolton for the mutual distrust between Washington and Seoul, for the following reasons.

It takes two to tango

Ten years ago, I received a phone call from an official of the Democratic Party of Japan-led government — a private secretary to one of the Cabinet ministers — saying that the deputy minister wanted to see me. But upon my visit to the deputy minister's office a week later, he was apparently puzzled. The deputy minister asked what he could do for me, and I said that he had wanted to see me. Both of us then realized that neither had asked for the meeting. The secretary had instinctively thought it would be a good idea for us to meet.

According to his memoir, Bolton was apparently in a similar situation. He never trusted North or South Korean officials. He wrote, “The more I learned, the more discouraged and pessimistic I became" about a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and “I was deeply skeptical of efforts to negotiate the North out of its nuclear weapons program.”

Later Bolton found that it was his South Korean counterpart, Chung, “who had suggested to Kim that he make the invitation in the first place! This whole diplomatic fandango was South Korea’s creation, relating more to its ‘unification’ agenda than serious strategy on Kim’s part or ours.”

Appeasement doesn't work

At least two people are required to perform the fandango, a lively couples dance of Spanish or Portuguese origin. In the case of U.S.-North Korea negotiations, however, nobody danced when the guitarist started playing. The reason was obvious. Neither of the dancers trusted the guitarist or, of course, each other.

Bolton found the "Punggye-ri closure" suggested by Pyongyang to be “pure fluff, starting with the lack of any U.S. or international site inspections, particularly of the tunnels and underground facilities before any preparations for or detonations closing the audits.” He concluded that “North Korea was concealing key information.”

Bolton was also skeptical about Seoul. He did not believe Moon’s view that "Kim's willingness to dismantle Yongbyon (never defined clearly) was a very meaningful first step, showing that the North had entered an irreversible stage of denuclearization,” calling it “Moon Jae-in’s schizophrenic idea.” Wasn’t Bolton right?

Double-tongued diplomacy

According to Bolton, neither Washington nor Pyongyang wanted to have a tripartite summit meeting at the DMZ. He wrote, “Trump wanted Moon nowhere around, but Moon was determined to be present, making it a trilateral meeting if he could,” and “it was certain Kim didn’t want Moon around,” either.

There must be an illusion on the South Korean side that Seoul, as a balancer, could mediate between Pyongyang and Washington. Balancing, however, is not enough to convince the two conflicting parties. What is more important is the mediator’s strength to impose whatever compromise solutions on the two parties.

Seoul, unfortunately, did not and probably will not have the power to force both parties to reconsider and pursue a compromise solution to the issue of denuclearization. Such double-tongued diplomacy wins no friends. History shows that it hasn't worked so far and never will be successful in the future.

Spitting against Heaven

Recent reports from Seoul suggest that some South Koreans believe that conspiracy between Japan and American hardliners, who are not happy with peace on the Korean Peninsula, led to the failure of the Hanoi summit in February 2019. As an English proverb says, however, "Who spits against Heaven, it falls in his face."

Seoul claims that the Bolton book violated mutual trust, a basic principle in diplomacy. If so, how could South Korea not be responsible for destroying the precious mutual trust by misleading the United States and North Korea at the critical moment of negotiations. South Korea instead blames it on Bolton and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

I don't buy such conspiracy theories. Over the past few decades, we have learned lessons from our failures to persuade Pyongyang. The Hanoi fiasco, together with the recent destruction of an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, reminds us that Seoul’s double-tongued daydreaming diplomacy will not fly and is most likely destined to fail.

Seoul may have sufficient reasons to be angry about the Bolton memoir. What it should really focus on, however, is neither Bolton, Trump, Abe, or Kim. It should aim its fury at Moon’s unrealistic balancing policy, which misled and disillusioned Washington and Pyongyang. That is what Bolton revealed in his memoir.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.

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