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Bolton takes back seat, but summit presence remains

The Associated Press

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, center, speaks with U.S. Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty in the Rose Garden at the White House on Thursday.

Reuters WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Just weeks after John Bolton’s hard-line rhetoric infuriated North Korea and nearly derailed a planned summit between Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, the U.S. national security adviser appears to have taken a back seat to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for the historic meeting.

While the hawkish Bolton — who has adopted a lower-key approach in recent days — is expected to be in Singapore for the talks on Tuesday, Pompeo has taken the lead as the administration assumes a softer tone toward Pyongyang ahead of the summit, several U.S. officials said.

Pompeo’s ascendance combined with Bolton’s more muted public role illustrates how the sometimes messy power dynamic in Trump’s inner circle has played out going into the first-ever meeting between U.S. and North Korean leaders.

But Trump’s ability to deliver the biggest foreign policy success of his presidency could rest heavily on the team he has hastily cobbled together to advise him, after announcing in March he was prepared to meet Kim in an effort to persuade the North Korean leader to give up a nuclear arsenal that now threatens the United States.

Pompeo, first as Trump’s CIA director and now as his chief diplomat, quickly made North Korea his main focus. But even as Pompeo was launching delicate diplomacy, Bolton — an outspoken former U.N. ambassador with a history of fraught dealings with Pyongyang — took up his post and began pushing a tougher approach to North Korea that he has long advocated.

Never was that clearer than when Bolton went on television on May 13, just days after Pompeo returned from a second visit to Pyongyang, and pressed North Korea to follow the “Libya model” in nuclear negotiations. Libya unilaterally surrendered its nuclear weapons program in 2003, but its leader, Muammar Gaddafi, was killed in 2011 by NATO-backed rebels.

Bolton’s demand angered North Korea, which threatened to pull out of the summit. Trump, who according to one U.S. official was furious that Bolton had made the Libya comparison, sought to salvage the meeting by disavowing his remarks.

But North Korea responded harshly. Trump on May 24 then canceled the summit, only to reinstate it a week later after meeting a North Korean envoy at the White House, where the president appeared to back away from his demand for Pyongyang’s swift, complete denuclearization.

Bolton — once denounced by North Korea as “human scum” during his days at the State Department under former President George W. Bush — was conspicuously absent from the Oval Office encounter, raising speculation he was sidelined.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump, however, has not frozen Bolton out on North Korea and he remains a key player, according to multiple U.S. officials.

Bolton, known as a skilled bureaucratic operator, has “taken the hint” to assume a lower profile and is mindful that his earlier clashes with Pyongyang could cause problems that should be avoided, one of the officials said. Before taking office, Bolton openly advocated North Korean “regime change.”

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