Donald Trump's North Korea Deal Fell Apart Because of John 'Bomb-'Em' Bolton, Experts Say

White House National Security Adviser John Bolton's last-minute role in influencing President Donald Trump's negotiations with North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un played a major role in the summit's ultimate failure to produce any agreements, experts said.

Bolton, who has a long history of dismantling international deals, was not present when Trump and Kim sat down for dinner Wednesday at the Sofitel Metropole Hotel in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. Neither was North Korean envoy, Stephen Biegun, who has led extensive, unprecedented negotiations with Pyongyang in the wake of a historic bilateral summit in Singapore last June.

Biegun's absence raised some eyebrows among observers. When he took a backseat to not only Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—who did dine with the two leaders—but to Bolton at the negotiating table the following day, those hoping to see a diplomatic milestone immediately grew worried.

"Something happened," Christine Ahn, founder and international coordinator of the Women Cross DMZ activist group, said Thursday during a press call, discussing Kim's choice of personnel as a sign that he was prepared for serious diplomacy. "When we saw the table and John Bolton sitting at the table and Stephen Biegun sitting behind when he had done all this work to do all this preparation, it just seemed for us, 'Oh my gosh, something fishy is going on here.'"

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President Donald Trump, North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un and their respective delegations hold a bilateral meeting during the second U.S.-North Korea summit at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 28. Among those seated next to Trump are Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, while U.S. special representative to North Korea Stephen Biegun is seated out of sight in a chair behind them. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

While few expected to see Kim agree immediately or unconditionally to forfeit the nuclear weapons program his country has held dear for decades, analysts saw the real possibility that the two countries—technically still at war since the two Koreas fought in the 1950s—could declare peace and that the U.S. was prepared to offer some sort of partial sanctions relief in exchange for North Korea's commitment to take concrete steps toward denuclearization. Instead, Trump told reporters that "sometimes you have to walk and this was just one of those times."

The upset left many wondering what went wrong. Amid the many variables surrounding the complex, uncharted talks between the U.S. and North Korea, those who followed the events of the last few days closely were pointing their fingers at Bolton's presence. The former top arms control official and United Nations ambassador has made no secret over the years of his distaste for international agreements and his preference for military action over diplomacy.

Bolton was a major proponent of the Iraq War, and has continued to defend the conflict despite the justification for the war—that the country was producing weapons of mass destruction and harboring militants affiliated with Al-Qaeda—having been proved wrong. In the year before the war, he had overseen former President George W. Bush's exit from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia and, since he was appointed to his current role last April, he has overseen Trump's exit from another Cold War–era arms control agreement, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, as well as the Iran nuclear deal.

"He's made it very clear that he doesn't believe in international agreements," John F. Tierney, a former Massachusetts congressman who serves as executive director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told reporters Thursday.

"This is a person who has a history of finding a way to be in a position of destroying the things he does not believe in," Bonnie Jenkins, who served as the State Department's coordinator for threat reduction programs under former President Barack Obama and now heads the Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security group, followed up. "Unfortunately, what we are seeing now is exactly what we feared."

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North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho (R) speaks as Vice Minister Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui looks on during a midnight press conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, March 1. The U.S. and North Korea walked away from their summit with no deal, but conflicting accounts on why the talks collapsed. HUY PHONG/AFP/Getty Images

How exactly Bolton may have steered the dialogue from its course was as of yet unclear, but there were a number of working theories. One was presented Thursday by former South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun during a call with the local CBS radio station. He said he was "almost 100 percent optimistic" about the talks up until this morning's press conference and attributed the failure to a last-minute stipulation proposed by Bolton that would mandate North Korea not only report on its nuclear weapons but its chemical and biological stockpiles too.

North Korea then reportedly raised the stakes to include sanctions relief, a deal breaker for Trump. The president would go on to say that the North Koreans "wanted sanctions lifted in their entirety," but in an extremely rare press conference organized at midnight Hanoi time—noon in Washington—North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho contended that he and his compatriots called for the removal of "partial U.N. sanctions," specifically sections of five resolutions that "impede the civilian economy and the livelihood of our people," according to a translation by North Korea News.

Catherine Killough, a Roger L. Hale Fellow at the Ploughshares Fund, told Newsweek that she was "inclined to believe" North Korea's account, as it seemed difficult to believe that Kim would travel some 2,000 miles for nearly three days by train to Vietnam without realistic demands. Bolton, on the other hand, "does not want a deal with North Korea," Killough said. "As long as he is involved in this process at all we have to be very wary."

It would not be the first time Bolton threatened to unravel months of diplomatic efforts that had gone into an attempt to overcome decades of mistrust between Washington and Pyongyang. Before Trump and Kim's first summit, Bolton resurrected his Bush-era argument that North Korea follow a "Libyan model" in denuclearizing. Such an analogy was hugely inflammatory, as longtime Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi would go on to be overthrown and killed by a 2011 U.S.-backed uprising less than eight years after shuttering his weapons of mass destruction program in exchange for peace with the West.

The comments, followed by threats from Vice President Mike Pence, set off a diplomatic firestorm between the two countries that briefly saw Trump cancel the upcoming landmark summit. Just months earlier, as Pyongyang and Seoul began their reconciliation process in February, Bolton, before joining the Trump administration, had written an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled "The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First."

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Then-Undersecretary of State for arms control and international security affairs John Bolton addresses a press conference at the U.S. embassy in Seoul, July 21, 2004. A year after championing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Bolton urged North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un's father, the late Kim Jong Il, to follow the example of Libya and abandon their nuclear weapons development, saying at the time that Washington won't be "fooled again" by North Korea. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

In a series of tweets, Representative Ro Khanna discussed how Bolton's history may have set Trump up for disaster in Hanoi. The Democrat wrote: "I was rooting for him to succeed for the sake of our nation. But I'm not shocked that Trump—with John Bolton at his side—has failed."

Also bringing up the national security adviser's hawkish track record, Win Without War think tank policy director Erica Fein said Thursday that it was "a huge mistake" for Trump, who has professed his love for the "art of the deal" and his contempt for costly, lengthy conflicts abroad, to appoint a man like Bolton, who has "already cemented his legacy." She said that "at the last minute, he felt empowered to press for more," sinking a potential deal.

"With John 'bomb-'em' Bolton at the table, we shouldn't be surprised if Trump opted for maximalism instead of incrementalism," Fein said. "Diplomacy is hard, but it is the only option to solve this crisis, so we in the U.S. who do advocacy for this need to create space for cooler heads to prevail."

While experts were notably disappointed by the outcome of the second-ever U.S.-North Korea summit, they cautioned against casting an overly pessimistic outlook. Daniel Wertz, the program manager for the National Committee on North Korea, said that "President Trump and Chairman Kim walked away from the table, but did not burn their bridges in doing so."

"Both sides have an interest in not letting this process collapse," Wertz said, also highlighting South Korea's potential role as mediator in the process. "The real question for the weeks and months ahead is whether or not the two sides will be content with just staying in the sort of equilibrium we've reached and been in in the past eight months or so, or will their negotiators be able to find a way to bridge the gap and start making progress."

Donald Trump's North Korea Deal Fell Apart Because of John 'Bomb-'Em' Bolton, Experts Say | World