US national security adviser John Bolton has denied that last week’s nuclear summit with North Korea was a failure, despite US President Donald Trump coming home empty-handed.
A high-stakes second meeting to strike a disarmament deal between the North’s Kim Jong-un and Mr Trump broke up in disarray last Thursday in Hanoi, without even a joint statement.
But Mr Bolton told Face the Nation in the US that Mr Trump’s failure to obtain commitments from Pyongyang on destroying its nuclear capability should be seen as “a success, defined as the president protecting and advancing American national interests.”
The White House aide said the issue was whether North Korea would accept what the president called “the big deal” — denuclearising completely — or something less, “which was unacceptable to us.”
“So the president held firm to his view. He deepened his relationship with Kim Jong-un. I don’t view it as a failure at all when American national interests are protected,” Mr Bolton added.
The outcome in Hanoi fell far short of expectations, after critics said the two leaders’ initial historic meeting in Singapore — which produced only a vague commitment from Kim to work “toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” — had yielded more style than substance.
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According to senior US officials, in the week leading up to the Hanoi summit the North Koreans had demanded the lifting of effectively all UN Security Council economic sanctions imposed on Pyongyang since March 2016.
In return, Pyongyang was only offering to close a portion of the Yongbyon complex, a sprawling site covering multiple facilities — and the North is believed to have other uranium enrichment plants.
“Sometimes you have to walk and this was just one of those times,” an unusually downcast Mr Trump told reporters on Thursday, adding that he would “rather do it right than do it fast.” After returning to Washington, the president tweeted on Friday that his relations with Kim were “very good.”
A senior US official said the process was continuing and there was “still ample opportunity to talk.”
Mr Bolton repeated the US position that it would help North Korea’s economic progress if it committed to complete denuclearisation and closing its chemical and biological weapons programs.
Compounding criticism of the summit, Mr Trump sparked a firestorm by his remarks on the case of an American student tortured and left in a coma in North Korea.
The president said he believed Kim’s claim that he didn’t know what happened to 22-year-old Otto Warmbier, who died days after being sent back to the United States in 2017.
After a stern rebuke from Warmbier’s parents, Mr Trump took to Twitter, insisting he held North Korea responsible for the student’s death — but without directly blaming Kim or even mentioning him.
‘BARBARIC AND UNACCEPTABLE’
“The president’s been very clear he viewed what happened to Otto Warmbier as barbaric and unacceptable,” Mr Bolton said.
“And I think the best thing North Korea could do right now would be to come up with a full explanation of exactly what happened to him.”
Mr Bolton was touring the Sunday political shows the morning after the US and South Korea announced an end to key annual large-scale military exercises involving close to 30,000 US troops.
The drills with tens of thousands of South Korean soldiers have been a perennial target of North Korean fury — with Pyongyang condemning the manoeuvres as provocative rehearsals for invasion.
Since the Singapore summit, the US and Seoul have scaled back or scrapped several joint exercises, and US bombers are no longer flying over South Korea.
Opponents of scrapping the drills have warned that it could affect the combat readiness of the combined US and South Korean forces and hand the North a strategic advantage on the divided peninsula.
Mr Bolton sought to play down Saturday’s announcement, however, saying nothing had changed since Singapore.
“It’s not like a new decision has been made,” Mr Bolton told CNN. “The president made the decision on the exercises back in the summer of last year, and those continue.”