At U.N., Trump Threatens to ‘Totally Destroy’ North Korea

In his inaugural speech before the General Assembly, Trump rails against “wicked” states, “embarrassing” deals, and “loser” terrorists.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 19: U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 19, 2017 in New York City. Among the issues facing the assembly this year are North Korea's nuclear developement, violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar and the debate over climate change. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 19: U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 19, 2017 in New York City. Among the issues facing the assembly this year are North Korea's nuclear developement, violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar and the debate over climate change. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump delivered a fiery, combative speech to the United Nations General Assembly, threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea, denouncing the Iran nuclear deal as an “embarrassment” to the United States, and hinting that he might be willing to break with much of the world and walk away from the agreement.

The threats were part of a provocative inaugural address to the 193-member U.N. General Assembly that Trump used to drive home his “America first” approach to foreign affairs. It stood in sharp contrast to his appearance Monday at a forum on U.N. reform, which he used to express a personal commitment to work with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, whom he credited with doing a “fantastic” job.

The remarks represented a full-fledged rejection of calls from allies and rivals alike to tone down the rhetoric on North Korea and pursue a diplomatic path to resolving the crisis.

Speaking in highly belligerent terms that triggered murmurs through the General Assembly hall, Trump warned Pyongyang that he would wipe out North Korea if their leader didn’t halt his development of nuclear weapons.

“Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime,” Trump said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump also took rhetorical aim at the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that most countries believe has successfully curtailed the prospects of Tehran developing a nuclear weapon. On Tuesday, Trump signaled clearly that he is ready to walk away from the accord, risking further U.S. diplomatic isolation on a hot-button issue.

“The deal was an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it, believe me,” he said.

Following Trump’s address, French President Emmanuel Macron swung back, warning in his General Assembly speech that renouncing the Iran deal would be “a grave error.” He added that “not respecting it would be irresponsible, because it is a good accord that is essential to peace at a time when the risk of infernal conflagration cannot be excluded.”

He also said it was important to keep the door open to a diplomatic settlement of the nuclear crisis in North Korea.

The U.S. and French presidents’ remarks were delivered after Guterres opened the 72nd U.N. General Assembly session with an appeal to pursue diplomacy with North Korea.

Guterres foreshadowed, if in more diplomatic language, some of the president’s concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program, noting that “millions live under the shadow of dread cast by the provocative nuclear and missile tests of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

But he voiced alarm over the belligerent threats coming out of Pyongyang and Washington, saying the nuclear standoff would only be resolved through diplomacy.

“Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings,” he said. “This is a time for statesmanship. We must not sleepwalk into war.”

Guterres’s own inaugural address to the U.N. General Assembly amounted to a step-by-step rebuke of Trump’s foreign policy — though without naming him — on a host of issues, including terrorism, refugees, climate change, Iran, and North Korea.

Describing himself as an immigrant, the former Portuguese prime minister and U.N. refugee chief said he has “been pained to see the way refugees and migrants have been stereotyped and scapegoated — and to see political figures stoke resentment in search of political gain.”

The secretary-general also took a swipe at the Trump administration’s dismissal of climate science and plans to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate-change accords, which were meant to limit the emission of greenhouse gases.

Citing destructive hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, Guterres appealed to U.N. members “to get off the path of suicidal emissions.”

“We should not link any single weather event with climate change,” he added. “But scientists are clear that such extreme weather is precisely what their models predict will be the new normal of a warming world.” (Another monster storm, Maria, hurtled toward Puerto Rico on Tuesday.)

The tenor of Trump’s first speech to the world assembly was lifted from his campaign rallies, including boasts about achievements during his first months in office and a bombastic tone about restoring American sovereignty.

“As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first,” said Trump.

The president’s speech didn’t just dismay the international delegations watching it live.

“We’re kind of just helpless,” one State Department official told Foreign Policy, describing U.S. diplomats watching Trump’s U.N. speech. “He’s going to say what he’s going to say, and we just have to put out the fire afterwards … all we can hope is that it won’t be that bad.”

While Trump was speaking in New York, literal fire alarms went off at the State Department in Washington. It turned out to be a drill.

While vowing to “forever be a great friend to the world, and especially to its allies,” Trump griped that the United Nations was taking advantage of the United States, making it shoulder an unfair share of the U.N. financial burden.

But Trump saved his strongest denunciations for traditional American rivals, including Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea.

“The scourge of our planet today is a small group of rogue regimes that violate every principle on which the United Nations is based,” he said. “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph.”

Trump accused the “depraved regime in North Korea” of starving millions of North Koreans, murdering its leader’s brother with nerve agent, and mistreating an American college student, Otto Warmbier, who died just days after he was released in a coma by North Korean authorities.

“If this is not twisted enough, now North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of life,” he said. “It is an outrage that some nations would not only trade with such a regime, but would arm, supply and financially support a country that imperils the world with nuclear conflict.

“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

He continued, “The United States is ready, willing and able. But hopefully, this will not be necessary. That’s what the United Nations is for. Let’s see how they do.”

Robbie Gramer contributed to this piece. The article was updated Tuesday afternoon.

Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch