WASHINGTON — Diplomats from six countries were ready to begin long-awaited talks on North Korea's nuclear program in July 2003 when U.S. arms control official John R. Bolton unexpectedly showed up in Seoul for a speech on the secretive regime.
Bolton criticized Pyongyang in harsh and personal terms, prompting the North Koreans to denounce him as "scum," and leading diplomats to fear that the sensitive talks would be called off.
In more than two decades in government, the 56-year-old Bolton has regularly served up messages that ignored diplomatic niceties. He has unsettled colleagues when he strayed from the administration's position. But he has won powerful admirers, including Vice President Dick Cheney, who once said Bolton deserved "any job he wants" in the Bush administration.
"Diplomacy is not an end [in] itself if it does not advance U.S. interests," Bolton has repeatedly said. He proudly keeps a bronzed hand grenade in his office to show his pride at his reputation as a bomb thrower.
"He's a man who knows his mind and speaks it freely," said Helle Dale, an admirer who is head of national security policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.
If he is confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, she predicted, Bolton will adopt an approach similar to Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the tough-talking U.S. ambassador to the world body from 1981 to 1985.
"And there may be some trepidation at the United Nations," Dale added.
In his current role as undersecretary of State for arms control, the department's No. 4 job, he has refused to yield regarding countries that the administration believes are building unconventional weapons programs, including North Korea and Iran.
Once asked why he opposed offering incentives to North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, Bolton said: "I don't do carrots."
He has warned of threats from foreign governments when others in the administration didn't concur. In 2002, Bolton delivered a stern speech warning that Fidel Castro was beginning a germ weapon program.
Other administration officials immediately sought to soften the warning; some intelligence officials made clear that they had no information about such a threat.
Some nonproliferation specialists have been particularly critical of Bolton's strategy, in which he confronts some countries with purported evidence of attempts to acquire nuclear and biological weapons, then tries to persuade allies to support U.S. efforts to isolate them.
"John Bolton has been totally unapologetic about his radical prescription for dealing with the proliferation threat," Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has said. "The main problem is that it hasn't worked anywhere."
In his current job, Bolton has also battled international organizations that could wield authority over Americans -- most notably, the International Criminal Court.
He was also one of the administration's strongest advocates for dumping the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, which prevented construction of an American antimissile shield.
Some who have worked with Bolton believe that he has wielded considerable influence over U.S. policy, considering the limits of his rank.
Charles L. Pritchard, a former U.S. special envoy to North Korea, said Bolton had learned to work with colleagues of similar views -- such as National Security Council aide Robert Joseph and Pentagon policy chief Douglas J. Feith -- to toughen administration positions on national security policy.
"He was indirectly influential," said Pritchard, now a visiting scholar at Brookings Institution in Washington. "He fed information to people in other agencies, and they reformulated it under their names."
A senior member of the Bush legal team during the Florida presidential ballot recount of 2000, Bolton has enjoyed strong support from conservatives, including former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a onetime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Helms described Bolton as "the kind of man I would want to stand with at Armageddon."
Bolton was assistant secretary of State for international organizations from 1989 to 1993, during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. He was an assistant attorney general from 1985 to 1989, during the Reagan administration.
A native of Baltimore, Bolton graduated from Yale Law School, where he made friends with future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Despite his outspokenness, friends describe him as a polite man who tries to return phone calls, and who likes to go to bed by 8 p.m. so he can rise at 4 a.m.
One senior administration official denied reports of friction between Bolton and other officials in the State Department when Colin L. Powell was secretary.
"We may take him sometimes with a grain of salt, but most people
Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Some remarks by John R. Bolton: