U.S. President Donald Trump’s fiery threat at the United Nations on Tuesday to “totally destroy” North Korea if the United States is forced to defend itself or its allies left much of East Asia reeling, though one clear benefactor has emerged: Shinzo Abe’s Japan.
This victory, however, may ultimately prove to be pyrrhic for Tokyo, the U.S. and the region, experts say, with Trump’s threat reinforcing Pyongyang’s belief that nuclear weapons remain the sole means of securing the regime’s safety.
Trump, in his first speech before the global body at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, laid into the regime of dictator Kim Jong Un, which he called “depraved” and “reckless” for causing the starvation deaths of millions of its people and for its dogged pursuit of a nuclear arsenal that it routinely invokes to threaten the U.S. and its allies.
“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,” Trump said.
Referring to Kim as “rocket man,” Trump said the North Korean leader “is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
“The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary,” he added.
The U.S. leader’s unusually forceful language echoed earlier statements, including a vow last month to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if it threatens the United States.
The North has made blistering progress in its nuclear and missile programs under Kim as it seeks to master the technology needed to reliably target the United States with a nuclear-tipped long-range missile. The young leader has overseen four nuclear tests and dozens of test-firings and training launches, including two in July of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that experts say is capable of striking a large chunk of the U.S.
On Friday, the North also lobbed an intermediate-range missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean for the second time in under three weeks. That missile traveled about 3,700 km, stoking concern in Tokyo and putting the U.S. territory of Guam, home to key American military bases, easily within striking distance.
Meanwhile, its Sept. 3 nuclear test was its most powerful to date, and was estimated by Tokyo to be as large as 160 kilotons — more than 10 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb.
With the tests and launches still fresh in world leaders’ minds, Trump used his speech to press U.N. members to work together to take on the Kim regime, laying out a laundry list of other indictments against the country. These included its treatment of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, who was held prisoner in North Korea and died shortly after he was sent home in a coma earlier this year, and — in a win for Abe — the 1977 abduction of Japanese teen Megumi Yokota and scores of other Japanese nationals by agents from the reclusive country.
Hoping to capitalize on growing momentum toward further isolating Pyongyang after the latest round of tough U.N. sanctions and the removal of North Korean ambassadors in a string of countries, Trump used the event to underscore what he said was a growing risk of nuclear conflict.
“North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life,” he said.
“It is time for North Korea to realize that its denuclearization is its only responsible future.”
While nothing new in terms of U.S. policy, Trump’s call for the North to denuclearize echoed an editorial in The New York Times days earlier by Abe that said pressure, not diplomacy should be prioritized.
“Dialogue,” the Japanese leader wrote, referencing past diplomatic failures, “will not work with North Korea.”
While some observers and officials have called for talks, experts said Trump’s speech could be seen as a victory for Abe for confirming the prime minister’s harder-line approach to the North Korean crisis.
“Trump made a pointed effort to demonstrate that North Korea’s regime was illegitimate on at least two levels to garner global support for its campaign to contain and denuclearize Pyongyang,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of politics at International Christian University in Tokyo.
Nagy said the first was in terms of its nuclear weapons push and the second was “in terms of the regime’s immoral and inhuman character.”
“Alluding to Megumi Yokota’s kidnapping illustrated that immoral character and recognized one of Japan’s emotional pressure points when it comes to North Korea,” Nagy said. “For Abe, the U.S. recognition of the kidnapping issue and the North’s threat to Japan is especially timely considering that an election will be held in October.”
Abe has worked tirelessly to forge strong bonds with his mercurial American counterpart after signals during the 2016 presidential campaign that Trump had considered shaking up the two allies’ security and trade relationships.
Trump had been mostly mum on the alliance issue in recent months, but in a somewhat abrupt take in the speech on what he said were one-sided deals, the matter arose again, though it appeared to garner less notice.
“The United States will forever be a great friend to the world, and especially to its allies,” Trump said. “But we can no longer be taken advantage of, or enter into a one-sided deal where the United States gets nothing in return. As long as I hold this office, I will defend America’s interests above all else.”
Still, Japan was effusive, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga heaping praise on Trump for the speech at a Wednesday news conference in Tokyo.
“(Trump) has reaffirmed his policy calling for the denuclearization of North Korea, and calling for the cooperation of the international society, including and China and Russia, to strengthen pressure on the North. We highly appreciate this,” Suga said, adding that the U.S. president’s words on the abduction issue had been seen by Tokyo as “extremely important, too.”
Asked to comment on Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea if the U.S. were forced to defend itself or its allies, Suga declined to answer, but reiterated Tokyo’s support for Washington’s claim that “all options are on the table,” including military action to rein in the nuclear-armed country.
Trump’s address came just a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis hinted that Washington had “many military options” against North Korea that he said would not leave Seoul at risk of devastating retaliatory strikes.
Pressed on whether the military options included so-called kinetic options that use lethal force, Mattis said: “I don’t want to go into that.”
Experts, analysts — and even Mattis, himself — have said that any eruption of conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be “catastrophic” not only for Americans and South Koreans, but potentially for Japanese, too.
Ultimately, Trump’s decision to unleash his rhetorical flourish Tuesday, and in turn Abe’s endorsement of U.S. policy toward Pyongyang, could return to haunt the two leaders, observers say.
Jean Lee, a North Korea expert and former foreign correspondent who opened The Associated Press’ Pyongyang bureau in 2012, called Trump’s address “reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ speech in his 2002 State of the Union … which also singled out North Korea for demonization.”
She said this approach was likely to backfire, giving Kim “proof” that the U.S. represents an existential threat to the North and vindicating his country’s illicit nuclear and missile drive.
“He tells his people that they need to be pouring the country’s precious resources into the nuclear program to protect the country from U.S. aggression,” said Lee, currently a global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington.
“Now, Kim Jong Un has ‘proof’ — threatening words straight from President Trump’s mouth at a major global forum that will further embolden Pyongyang to keep building bombs. … and accelerate progress toward building a nuclear-tipped ICBM,” she said.
Staff writer Reiji Yoshida contributed to this report