Trump’s Belligerent Talk on North Korea Rattles Turtle Bay

Talk of “destroying” Pyongyang has unsettled what was near-unanimity in reining in the Hermit Kingdom.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 19:  President Donald Trump speaks to world leaders at the 72nd United Nations (UN) General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 19, 2017 in New York City. This is Trump's first appearance at the General Assembly where he addressed threats from Iran and North Korea among other global concerns.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 19: President Donald Trump speaks to world leaders at the 72nd United Nations (UN) General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 19, 2017 in New York City. This is Trump's first appearance at the General Assembly where he addressed threats from Iran and North Korea among other global concerns. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s blunt threat Tuesday before the U.N. General Assembly to annihilate North Korea if it attacks the United States or its allies achieved an unexpected outcome: It turned some backers of the U.S. strategy of ratcheting up pressure on Pyongyang into critics.

“The spirit of the world community and the United Nations is not to threaten one another, it is to find a way to come up with solutions,” Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven told reporters.

Two weeks earlier, Sweden had banded together with the United States, China, Russia and eleven other members of the U.N. Security Council to adopt the toughest sanctions ever imposed against the Hermit Kingdom. Following Trump’s speech, Löfven pressed the Americans to allow more time for those sanctions to bear fruit.

“There is only a political solution that we can see in front of us; there is no military solution because that would be a disaster, not only for North Korea, but for South Korea, Japan and the region.”

The Swedish politician’s remarks highlight the limits of the diplomatic consensus Washington has built to confront a confrontational North Korea that has conducted six nuclear tests, including a high-powered explosive in early September, and carried out scores of  ballistic missile tests, including a pair of long range missiles with the capacity to reach the American mainland.

While much of the world, including traditional rivals like China and Russia, are  prepared to stand behind the U.S. as it squeezes the country into submission, few are willing to support U.S. military action to contain the regime.

In his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, which would face the brunt of any military retaliation by North Korea, urged the U.N. to “strongly and sternly” respond to North Korea’s nuclear advances, including through ever-stronger economic sanctions.

But he cautioned states to avoid a confrontation, saying everyone had a responsibility to “prevent the outbreak of war.”

“The situation surrounding the North Korean nuclear issue needs to be managed stably so that tension will not become overly intensified or accidental military clashes will not destroy peace.”

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel voiced concern that the tenor of debate at this year’s U.N. General Assembly has grown harsher, more intransigent and belligerent from day to day and from speech to speech.”

While not signaling out Trump out by name, he was crystal clear when he said “the motto ‘Our country first’ results in “more national confrontations and less prosperity. In the end, there will only be losers.”

Gabriel said his government supports the U.S.-led effort to impose sanctions on North Korea, saying the “irresponsible actions of North Korea…pose a serious threat to world peace.”

“At the same time,” he added, “we have to make use of all diplomatic means at our disposal, first of all to defuse the situation and subsequently to find a point of departure for long term solutions.”

Not everyone was troubled by the speech. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who sat beside Trump during the U.N. luncheon for world leaders, praised the American’s speech.

“We consistently support the stance of the United States: that ‘all options are on the table,’” he said in his address to the General Assembly.

“It was not a lack of dialogue that gave rise to this situation.” he added, detailing multiple rounds of diplomatic talks dating to the early 1990s. “From the start, North Korea had never intended to abandon its nuclear ambitions.”

“The speech was much more measured than Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric, where President Trump unfortunately took Kim Jong Un’s verbal bait,” said Sean King, a former Asia expert in the Commerce Department under George W. Bush. “This time, he methodically built a case against the North Korean regime and made clear any U.S. strike would only be in response to an attack.”

But Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, said Trump’s speech “does not bode well for a true negotiated resolution of the North Korean crisis. It implies we’re getting prepared to engage in a conflict with North Korea.”

Trump’s belligerent tone toward another would-be nuclear power, Iran, also has ramifications for the crisis on the Korean peninsula, he said. Trump’s threat to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal will “be heard by the North Koreans and they will conclude that the Americans can’t be trusted even if you sit down and negotiate an agreement.”

U.S. officials believe that North Koreans have simply used diplomatic talks to provide time and cover for their pursuit of nuclear weapons. North Korea, they noted, didn’t have the ability to launch a nuclear weapon when they began talks in 1994. More than twenty years of on and off talks have resulted in North Korea’s emergence as a nuclear weapons state.

“I still feel some hope for de-escalation. Pyongyang has a long standing practice of bluster — learnt in Moscow of old days,” Hans Blix, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told Foreign Policy by email.

“They have now got a partner with a natural talent for the shouting game,” he said. “I think both will try to avoid crashing — but they could miscalculate.”

Blix spoke favorably of a proposal, which has been promoted by some American arms control experts as well as China and Russia, to have Pyongyang suspend its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs in exchange for the U.S. suspending large military exercises in the region.  But Washington has dismissed that proposal, which would require the the United States to stop a legal exercise in exchange for North Korea halting its illegal nuclear and ballistic missile activities.

Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University who was closely involved in effort to negotiate a nuclear deal with Pyongyang in the 1990s, said that Trump is not the first American official to threaten to annihilate North Korea; previous presidents including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all resorted to tough language at times.

But he said Trump’s remarks are likely to harden North Korea’s negotiating position if talks ever restarted.

“Time is on their side,” he said. “It will make them less willing to either come to the table, or when they get to the table they are going to raise the price,” he said. “So, on balance, it is obviously not a positive thing.

“The flip side of the coin it’s not going to frighten them,” he said. “If he thinks he is sounding tough, they are just as tough as him, if not tougher, based on the last fifty years of their history.”

For its part, North Korea leader Kim Jong-un dismissed Trump’s threat as little more than “rude nonsense” uttered by the “mentally deranged dotard.”

“A frightened dog barks louder,” Kim said, according to the official Korean Central News Agency. Trump, he said, “is surely a rogue and a gangster fond of playing with fire, rather than a politician.”

“His remarks, which described the U.S. option through straightforward expression of his will have convinced me, rather than frightening me, that the path I chose is correct and that is the one I have to follow to the last,” Kim said.

Photo credit: SPENCER PLATT/Getty Images

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

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