UNITED NATIONS — President Donald Trump's threat before the world to obliterate North Korea left no doubt about his determination to stop the communist country's nuclear weapons buildup. His disparagement of the Iran nuclear deal in the same speech offered Pyongyang little hope of a negotiated solution.
In his maiden address at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump spelled out in blunt and personal terms the reasons why Kim Jong Un and his government should be treated as pariahs. It was a surprisingly brutal indictment, even by the standards of a president who has spoken about unleashing “fire and fury” on Kim's country if it didn't end its nuclear provocations.
Trump said not only has the North Korean government starved its citizens and killed opponents, it was now threatening the world with “unthinkable loss of life.”
“It is time for North Korea to realize that the denuclearization is its only acceptable future,” Trump said.
He offered no path toward making that future a reality.
Despite Trump's rhetoric, his administration insists it is seeking a diplomatic resolution. Any military intervention designed to eliminate the North's nuclear and missile arsenal would almost surely entail dire risks for U.S. allies in the region, particularly South Korea, lying in range of the North's vast stockpiles of weaponry.
Asked about Trump's address, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reiterated his preference Tuesday.
“We will hopefully get this resolved through diplomatic means,” Mattis told reporters in Washington.
But other than using economic pressure to try to compel Pyongyang to give away its nuclear weapons — a strategy that has failed for the past decade — Trump's administration has yet to lay out a strategy for a possible negotiated settlement. In recent weeks, the administration's lack of direction has been all too apparent, as Trump and other top officials have vacillated between bellicose talk of possible military action and, at one point, even praise for Kim for a brief lull in missile tests.
“In the absence of such a policy roadmap, the president's words won't change North Korea's behavior,” said Frank Jannuzi, an East Asia expert and president of the Washington-based Mansfield Foundation. “Nor will they bolster Chinese, Russian or allied confidence in the U.S. approach.”
Fears of a military confrontation are increasing. North Korea conducted a series of provocative launches in recent months, including a pair of intercontinental missiles believed capable of striking the continental United States and another pair that soared over Japanese territory. It also exploded its most powerful nuclear bomb to date. Prodded by Washington, the U.N. has responded with the toughest economic sanctions on North Korea yet.
Still, the impasse is no closer to being resolved. Russia and China, which backed the new sanctions, want the U.S. to seek dialogue with the North. American officials say the time isn't right for any formal diplomatic process.
Instead, Trump has escalated the name calling. On Tuesday, he derisively referred to Kim as a “Rocket Man” on a “suicide mission.”
Trump also made a direct comparison between the “reckless regimes” in Pyongyang and Tehran, which rolled back its nuclear program only two years ago.
The comparison could reinforce Kim's view that he needs nuclear-armed, intercontinental ballistic missiles to deter the U.S. from attacking him, according to Mark Fitzpatrick at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Denouncing a deal that all other parties are upholding will certainly not make the North Koreans any more disposed toward striking a deal with the United States over their nuclear program,” he said.
Trump called the Iran deal one-sided and “an embarrassment to the United States.” His comments heightened anticipation that Trump might declare Iran in violation of the seven-nation agreement, and even destroy it entirely, despite a U.N. report this month showing Iran was living up to its end of the bargain.
The Obama administration, which forged the Iran deal, never lost an opportunity to point out how it showed Washington was willing to reach a deal with an adversary prepared to negotiate in good faith. It often made that argument explicitly when talking about North Korea.
Pyongyang may be completely uninterested.
The North has virtually closed the door to a diplomatic resolution, said Evans Revere, a former senior State Department official who participated in unofficial talks with North Korean officials in Switzerland this month. “Defiance and confrontation, not dialogue, seem to be at the center of Pyongyang's thinking these days,” he said. “That's a dangerous place to be.”
Nevertheless, U.S. allies don't want Trump to close off the possibility of a peaceful end to the crisis.
“There is no other solution,” Chancellor Andrea Merkel, who recently suggested Iran-style negotiations with North Korea, told an election rally in Germany on Tuesday.
Speaking shortly before Trump at the U.N., the world body's secretary-general urged diplomacy.
“Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings,” Antonio Guterres said. “This is a time for statesmanship. We must not sleepwalk our way into war.”
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