Former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton (L) and outgoing White House National Security Adviser HR McMaster. Photos: Reuters

US President Donald Trump’s surprise appointment of hardliner John Bolton as National Security Adviser on Thursday may have particular impact North Korea policy as Bolton has taken, arguably, a harder line against the state than any other Washington figure in recent years.

Having served in the George W. Bush administration that famously dubbed North Korea part of the “Axis of Evil,” Bolton is a formidable briefer, with expert knowledge of the country’s atomic programs. Last month, he published a column arguing the case for a first-strike against North Korea.

He is also a proponent of nixing the Iranian nuclear deal. That prospect appalls many policymakers and pundits – partly on the grounds that such an action would indicate to Pyongyang that Washington cannot be trusted to stick to the deals it signs.

Bolton’s appointment follows the recent dropping of academic Victor Cha as ambassador to Seoul, and the retirement of Joseph Yun from the position of United States Special Representative for North Korea Policy. There is concern in both Seoul and Washington that the administration is losing expert insight on the flashpoint peninsula.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House, which had worked closely with the previous National Security Adviser HR McMasters, was diplomatic on the personnel shift.

“While serving as undersecretary of state, Bolton gained a great deal of knowledge about Korean Peninsula issues, and most of all, he is an advisor trusted by President Trump,” a senior presidential official said, according to newswire Yonhap. “We will be cooperating closely with President Trump, the national security advisor and the secretary of state.”

What will North Korea think?

Even so, the signal Bolton’s appointment to the inner sanctum of the White House sends to North Korea, as it gears up for its first-ever summit with a US president in May, is open to interpretation.

Pundits are divided over whether North Korea is coming to the summit from a position of strength generated by the latest developments of its strategic weapons programs, or from weakness in the face of sanctions pressure and fear of what Trump might do; the latter position is what the US president himself appears to believe.

Viewed in this light, Bolton’s appearance on the scene might be considered a slap in the face for their diplomatic efforts – or might propel them down the diplomatic route with even greater urgency than previously.

“This is a brilliant move straight out of The Art of The Deal – Bolton will scare them to death so Trump can negotiate from a position of peace through strength,” said Mike Bassett, an independent Pyongyangologist with extensive personal experience of North Korea who recently retired from a position inside the beltway. “This type of coercive diplomacy will force them to the table and to take negotiations seriously: Kim Jong-un, like President Trump, is an alpha personality who only respects a strongman counterpart.”

“Trump’s lineup is getting a lot more hardline,” admitted Go Myung-hyun, a North Korea specialist at Seoul think tank the Asan Institute. “But this is not a bad thing for North Korea as Trump is hiring people who have his trust. With [former Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson, there was no point in using the New York [United Nations] channel, but now he is sidelined, they know that they can talk to [incoming Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and get straight to Trump.”

And with Trump still behind the planned summit, Bolton’s appointment does not necessarily mean Armageddon is imminent.

“If Bolton had been appointed to the position of secretary of defense, that would be more worrisome, but this role is as coordinator,” Go added. “Bolton is going to make a lot of noise about hard pressure, so the North Koreans have the option of getting scared, but they may realize that the game is still on.”

North Korea finally speaks out on ‘diplomatic offensive’

Meanwhile, North Korea – which only mentioned the May summit proposal to South Korean envoys, and has not yet formally referenced it nor mentioned it in state media – appears to be preparing necessary groundwork.

This may reassure those who, given the North’s silence on the issue thus far, feared that the South Korean side may have misrepresented what Kim Jong-in and other officials had told them.

Its parliament will meet in April, while state media is making veiled references to the new mood between Washington and Pyongyang.

On Tuesday, AP reported that the Korean Central News Agency noted that Pyongyang’s “proactive measure and peace-loving proposal” have caused a “dramatic atmosphere for reconciliation…. in relations between the North and the South of Korea and that there has been a sign of change also in the DPRK-US relations.”

The DPRK is an acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Calling ongoing moves “a dialogue peace offensive,” the KCNA lambasted critics of the summit in Japan, South Korea and the US – whose position is that North Korea cannot be trusted as a good-faith negotiator and that Trump will be “played” by Kim.

“Their useless gossip is the same as lying down and spitting, only embarrassing authorities who accepted our peace-loving request,” the KCNA said. The commentary noted that “The dialogue peace offensive of the DPRK is an expression of self-confidence as it has acquired everything it desires,” and called on all parties to act with “prudence, self-control and patience.”

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