TOKYO — President Donald Trump appeared to contradict his national security adviser on foreign soil in an early morning tweet Sunday, noting that while some in his administration were “disturbed” by North Korea’s testing of ballistic missiles earlier this month, the president himself was not bothered.
In the missive, Trump also used North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a foil against a domestic political rival — former vice president Joe Biden — and complicated his relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the first full day of his visit here.
Trump’s tweet was a direct rebuke of his national security adviser, John Bolton, who on Saturday had warned reporters here that there is “no doubt” North Korea’s missile tests violated United Nations Security Council resolutions, adding that Trump is determined to maintain sanctions pressure on the regime until it backs down.
“North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me,” Trump wrote. “I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me.”
Bolton’s comments marked the first time a senior administration official has confirmed that North Korea launched ballistic missiles in contravention of U.N. resolutions, with officials appearing reluctant until now to make such a clear statement, in order to demonstrate their willingness to restart dialogue.
The small weapons Trump referred to were short-range ballistic missiles, one of which flew nearly 300 miles before landing in the sea. That is a direct threat to U.S. ally South Korea, while medium-range missiles would also put Japan in range. Japan also described North Korea’s last test as short-range ballistic missiles, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, but noted that they did not land within Japanese waters or directly threaten its security.
But Trump’s tweet, at roughly 7:30 a.m., seemed to undo Bolton’s tough talk and undermined his national security adviser.
Bolton and Trump have disagreed on a number of issues in recent weeks, including just how hawkish a stance to take in conflicts with Venezuela and Iran, and that friction has recently spilled into public view. Earlier this month, Trump praised Bolton to reporters but noted that he and his national security adviser often have different views about the use of American power and foreign intervention.
The Twitter missive is also likely to complicate Trump’s visit with Abe, with whom he was set to play golf Sunday morning. The Japanese have long argued for a tougher line against North Korea, with Abe pushing hard for no sanctions relief for North Korea, as well as a resolution to the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by the North Koreans.
The president has significantly tightened sanctions on North Korea, but in a March tweet that unsettled Tokyo and sparked confusion across Washington — including among the president’s own aides — Trump also canceled a new round of sanctions from his Treasury Department.
Trump is also expected to meet with the Japanese families of the abductees on his visit — something Japanese diplomats said was deeply important to Abe.
In his Sunday tweet, Trump also misspelled Biden’s name — incorrectly writing “Bidan” — and weaponized his friendship with Kim for campaign leverage over Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate on whom Trump and his allies are most focused.
The president said in the tweet that he had appreciated a recent comment by North Korea state media calling Biden a “low IQ idiot” whose candidacy should not carry high expectations. Trump wrote that he “also smiled when he called Swampman Joe Bidan a low IQ individual, & worse. Perhaps that’s sending me a signal?” Trump later corrected the misspelling.
With Trump in Tokyo for a state visit, he faces deadlock and the possible collapse of what he considers to be one of his key foreign policy achievements, calming tensions with Pyongyang and ending its nuclear and missile tests, as well as starting a dialogue about denuclearization.
But missiles are being tested, talks have completely dried up, and threatening language is on the rise, with both sides demanding that the other back down, in what amounts to a nuclear-armed staring match. Vipin Narang, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose focus includes nuclear proliferation and North Korea, tweeted that Trump’s social media message was deeply problematic.”There is a lot that is really disturbing here, but the most important bit is ‘Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me,’” Narang wrote. “Kim never promised to unilaterally disarm, and the problem is Trump continues to believe he did. THAT is why this is so dangerous.”
North Korea conducted two sets of missile tests this month, with Bolton describing them as “close-range ballistic missiles,” as well as “more standard SRBMs, short-range ballistic missiles.” U.N. Security Council resolutions, including Resolution 1695, specifically prohibits North Korea from launching any ballistic missiles, he said, adding: “I know that because I wrote it.”
“In terms of violating Security Council resolutions, there’s no doubt about that,” Bolton told reporters on Saturday, hours before Trump was due to land and be greeted by Abe.
“I think the prime minister and the president are going to talk about making sure the integrity of the U.N. Security Council resolutions is maintained,” he said.
On Friday, North Korea’s foreign ministry again blamed the United States for deliberately causing the collapse of the Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un by making unilateral and impossible demands.
Dialogue between the two countries will never be resumed unless the United States changes its “calculation,” an unnamed foreign ministry spokesman told the Korean Central News Agency, “and the further its mistrust and hostile acts toward the DPRK grow, the fiercer our reaction will be.”
North Korea’s formal name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“God knows what they said this time,” Bolton said when asked about the latest comments. “After many years of being called human scum by North Korea, I take most of what they say with a grain of salt.”
But he made clear the Trump administration was not about to change its stance.
“The North Korean leadership well knows the president’s view,” he said, which he said concurs with that of Abe: “keeping sanctions in place and in force until North Korea shows it has made a strategic decision to give up its nuclear weapons.”
“I don’t think that’s going to change,” he added.
Bolton rejected suggestions he was behind a hardening of the U.S. negotiating position in Hanoi, arguing it had been Trump’s consistent position, dating back to the campaign trail as well as last year’s Singapore summit with Kim, that North Korea can have a bright future if it surrenders its nuclear arsenal.
“The president’s opened the door to North Korea, and we’re just waiting for them to walk through it,” he said.
Bolton said Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, “can’t wait” to meet his North Korean counterpart again, “but they haven’t responded,” adding that Biegun was ready to get on a plane and go “anywhere, any time.”
“We really haven’t heard much from the North Koreans since the Hanoi summit, nor has President Moon of South Korea,” he said.
Facing North Korean stonewalling, Bolton said he welcomed Abe’s recent offer to hold unconditional talks with Kim Jong Un.
In the past, Abe had insisted he wanted to see progress on the return of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago, but he has recently dropped that demand in a bid to persuade Kim to talk.
“The president has held two unconditional meetings with Kim Jong Un, so I wouldn’t see anything untoward if Prime Minister Abe had an unconditional meeting,” Bolton said.
Abe had spoken about the abductees almost every single time he spoke with Trump on the phone or in person since Trump took office, Bolton said. The U.S. president raised the issue with Kim several times in Hanoi and recommended he talk to Abe directly.
“The president is aware of the priority Japan places on it,” Bolton said. “We are waiting to see some response from the North Korean regime.”
Given the importance of the abductee issue and Japan’s interest in the elimination of North Korea’s weapons program, an Abe-Kim summit “could be of substantial assistance,” Bolton said.
For now, though, the prospect of such a summit appears even more remote than a third Trump-Kim meeting, experts say.
Before he left the United States, Japanese diplomats expressed indifference to the prospect of Trump unleashing a string of freewheeling tweets while abroad, saying that domestic politics is the president’s business. But by weighing on North Korea, as well as a Democratic political rival, in a single tweet, Trump yet again undermined Japan’s careful preparations, in which they hoped to flatter Trump into affirming the important relationship between Japan and the United States.
The president also couldn’t resist offering his opinion on the criminal case against actor Jussie Smollett, in a tweet around 5:45 a.m. Railing against “great incompetence and corruption,” Trump argued that “MAGA COUNTRY” was owed an apology.
Washington Post writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.