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Transcript: NPR's Full Interview With John Bolton

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Sept. 30, 2019.
Former National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Sept. 30, 2019.

Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep interviews John Bolton, former National Security Adviser to President Donald Trump and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, about North Korea and about the impeachment of President Trump.

Steve Inskeep: I actually want to begin with your tweet on December 10th. Were you referring to canceling a U.N. human rights session on North Korea?

John Bolton: Yes, there was a lot of talk about whether the United States should go forward with that, should accept it. It was suggested by a number of our European allies. I thought it was an excellent point to talk about. I think whenever the Europeans get interested in the North Korean situation that's to our advantage. I think it's useful to remind them that many of the same complaints could be made about Iran. And I think it's also fine to talk about the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But the idea, at least as reported in the press, that the United States opposed a session on North Korean human rights for fear of offending Kim Jong Un would have been a big mistake.

Well, that seems to be what has happened. How much did the United States damage itself?

Well, I don't think you damage yourself by telling the truth about a country, and I think it's emblematic of regimes like North Korea and Iran that not only are they rogue states seeking deliverable nuclear weapons, but they're also state sponsors of terrorism. And on the side, repress their own population. I mean, I think their characteristics about these regimes that tell us a lot about the way they behave.

Ambassador, is it possible to get a North Korea nuclear deal that is worth having at all?

I don't believe so, because I don't think North Korea will ever voluntarily give up nuclear weapons. It's been the pattern as we've watched it for over three decades now. The North Koreans are very happy to declare that they're going to give up their nuclear weapons program, particularly when it's in exchange for tangible economic benefits, but they never get around to doing it. And I think the inescapable conclusion is they're happy to sell that same bridge over and over again, but there's no serious chance they will ever voluntarily give it up.

Is it a mistake for the United States to keep trying, given that countries like China and Russia, North Korea's friends, demand some kind of diplomatic process to keep up economic sanctions?

Well, you know, if they don't want to keep the economic sanctions up, which are, after all, part of U.N. Security Council resolutions, they being permanent members of the Security Council, then I think that tells them something about them as well. The conditions should be that North Korea doesn't develop weapons of mass destruction. And I include in there chemical and biological as well as nuclear weapons. The Chinese, for example, say they are opposed to a North Korean nuclear weapon because it will destabilize East Asia and impair their economic development. Well, taking the Chinese at their word, they should want to enforce the sanctions for their own safety.

You would hope so, but of course, they are already urging that the sanctions be eased at this time. Is it a mistake for the United States to keep trying for some kind of deal?

Sorry, I can't, I can't hear anything. Can you hear me?

Oh, yeah, I can hear you again. There we go, Ambassador. Is it a mistake for the United States to keep trying for some kind of deal?

You're very, very faint. I can't really hear. I can hear you speaking, but I can't make out the words.

[At this point in the interview, there were technical difficulties. Ambassador Bolton disconnected the line. NPR called him back and the interview resumed.]

OK. That's a better line. We'll just dive right in. Now that North Korea seems to be threatening some kind of provocation by the end of the year if they don't get some kind of progress, is the Trump administration taking the right approach?

Well, I take everything that North Korea says with a big grain of salt. There may or may not be some development toward the end of the year. I think part of this may be bluff on their part. They think the president's desperate for a deal. And if they put an artificial time constraint on it, they may think they're gonna get a better deal. We'll just have to wait and see. But this is all part of the North Korean playbook. They've successfully jived the three prior American administrations, and they plan to do the same with this one.

Is this administration at risk of being, did you say jived?

Well, I think you have to approach North Korea with the view that they're not going to voluntarily give up their nuclear weapons program. There's simply no evidence, and there never has been for decades, that they are making a strategic decision not to proceed. And the nature of the way North Korea wants to negotiate, what they call "action for action," invariably benefits the would-be nuclear weapons state because they get economic benefits that are much more important to them than the minimal concessions they make on the nuclear side. And here's the key point. Time is almost always on the side of the proliferator. The more time they have, the more they can overcome all the technological and scientific difficulties to perfecting a deliverable nuclear weapons capability. So the fact that they're not doing anything today, and they didn't do anything yesterday that we can see, is not a good sign. It probably just means we're not seeing it. But the longer time goes on, the greater their capability will become.

Did differences over North Korea influence your departure from the White House, Ambassador?

Well, you know, I'm going to have my say on all that in due course, and I'll be happy to talk to you about it when the time's appropriate.

Oh. And people will know you have a book coming out among various other forums. I guess I can ask, though, if impeachment, which the president now faces, weakens the president's hand when it comes to confronting a country like North Korea?

Well, you know, there's obviously a lot of swirling around in that department, including some litigation that could affect my status. So I think although I have a lot to say on the subject, the prudent course for me is just to decline to comment at this point.

Oh, you don't want to talk about anything relating to impeachment. Are you able to give your view of this, though: Why do you think the House which asked for your testimony, did not then formally subpoena you?

Honestly, you'll have to ask them.

Why not testify? People ask, I want you to have an opportunity to answer that.

Well, I appreciate that. But as I say, Dr. Kupperman, my former deputy, is in litigation now on what to me is a critical separation of powers question. When the House issues a subpoena, and in his case, and I think it would be true in mine, the president tells him not to testify, which authority controls? Dr. Kupperman went to court to seek the third branch's opinion in this conflict between the first two. I think that's a very important issue that needs to be resolved. When he went to court, the House withdrew their subpoena of him.

This is Charles Kupperman, another official who has been summoned. And when you say they withdrew the subpoena, are you saying you think that maybe a court would find on the side of you not having to testify or not being allowed to testify?

Well, you know, Dr. Kupperman took the position in his case that he wasn't going to weigh in on the merits of either side. If the court determined he should testify, he was prepared to do it. But ironically, both the executive branch and the legislative branch didn't want the court to reach the merits. That case is still under advisement. So we're still hoping for a decision that will tell Dr. Kupperman which way he needs to go.

Ambassador Bolton, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

Well, thanks for having me.

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