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Trump Critics Say UN Speech Undermines North Korea Diplomacy

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 19, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 19, 2017.

President Donald Trump’s threat to “totally destroy North Korea,” which he made during his speech to the United Nations, could serve to justify the Kim Jong Un regime’s perceived need for a nuclear deterrence and undermine international support for increased sanctions and possible military action, according to regional security analysts.

During his first address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, President Trump referred to the North Korean leader as “Rocket Man” on a suicide mission, warned that the authoritarian regime’s “reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life,” and said if the United States “is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

Trump did say he hoped military action would not be necessary and called on the United Nations to do more to convince North Korea that denuclearization is “its only acceptable future.”

Allies React

Reaction to Trump’s speech from key U.S. allies in Asia was mixed.

In Tokyo, the conservative government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe praised the U.S. president for taking a strong stand against North Korean provocations, including two recent ballistic missile tests that flew over Japanese airspace.

"We highly regard that he reaffirmed our aim to denuclearize the North Korea peninsula, and also for the strong call for cooperation by the international community, including China and Russia to add further pressure on North Korea," said Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Wednesday.

The liberal Moon Jae-in administration in Seoul, which Trump had criticized as favoring appeasement for trying to engage with Pyongyang, downplayed the confrontational aspect of the speech and praised the U.S. leader’s commitment to peace and security in the region.

The North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, Ja Song Nam, walked out of General Assembly hall as Trump entered to speak.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Wednesday it is incorrect to say China has not been doing enough, referring to Trump’s call for the world to do more to uphold sanctions imposed on North Korea.

Counterproductive Views

Many Trump supporters may like the tough rhetoric he used to oppose North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear and missile capabilities, but critics say the speech will make the U.S. goal of finding a diplomatic solution more difficult.

Northeast Asia analyst Marcus Noland, with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, wrote a blog post Tuesday saying from the North Korean perspective, Trump’s speech reinforces the country’s need for nuclear weapons to defend against and “existential threat by hostile foreign forces led by the United States. With those words, President Trump handed the Kim regime the soundbite of the century. It will play on a continuous loop on North Korean national television.”

Carla Anne Robbins, a professor of national security studies at Baruch College said she “cringed” when she heard Trump refer to the North Korea leader as “rocket man” and complained that the confrontational tone of the speech would not convince skeptical nations like China and Russia to support further sanctions on North Korea, nor will it make the case amongst allies for military action.

“I don’t think it helps with the credibility of any diplomatic initiative that one might want to put forward, certainly in our relations with our allies and trying to rally them into taking risks or making sacrifices,” said Robbins who is also a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Stewart Patrick with the Council on Foreign Relations called Trump’s threat against North Korea a “juvenile tweak” that risks “undermining the credibility of the United States.” He also said President Trump’s criticism of the Iranian nuclear agreement in the speech, and the implied possibility he may pull out of that deal, sends a message to Pyongyang that the U.S. cannot be trusted.

“I do think that the North Koreans are obviously watching carefully to see how Iran is treated and, you know, what could be expected, were they ever in a position or a desire to give up their nuclear weapons,” said Patrick.

North Korea has justified the need for its nuclear program by pointing to fate of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, who was overthrown and killed by U.S. and NATO backed rebel forces, just a few years after he agreed to give up his country’s nuclear weapons.