In his first State of the Union address, U.S. President Donald Trump branded the North Korean regime “depraved” and touted his pushback against “unfair trade deals,” but had little new to say beyond rehashed statements about two key issues allied Japan continues to grapple with.
Trump, speaking before both houses of Congress, lambasted the “cruel dictatorship in North Korea,” which he said has “oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally” than any other.
The U.S. leader also said the North’s “reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland” and vowed to continue his campaign of “maximum pressure” to prevent Pyongyang from reaching that goal.
“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation,” he said. “I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position.
“We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies,” he added.
The North has ramped up its threats to the U.S. and its allies — including Japan — in both words and deeds, including successful tests of what the country claimed was a powerful hydrogen bomb and the separate test of an intercontinental ballistic missile believed capable of striking the American mainland. Last year, it also lobbed two missiles over Japan, stoking concern in Tokyo and cementing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s position as one of the leading backers of Trump’s pressure campaign.
But Trump’s assurances aside, his verbal jousting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as well as his stance that “all options remain on the table” — an allusion to the White House position that military action remains a viable means of halting Pyongyang’s march to being able to credibly threaten the U.S. — have left many fearing the mercurial leader could launch unilateral strikes on the country.
His address to Congress, however, appeared unlikely to assuage those fears.
“There was no policy here, neither what he has done to date nor what he is going to do ahead,” said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
“The president didn’t address the fears here and on the peninsula about the prospect of a U.S. military strike, the ‘bloody nose’ idea, despite the statements of his Cabinet or his new National Security Strategy,” she said.
Trump, she added, “promised ‘U.S. resolve’ but didn’t talk about the real security challenge of North Korea’s missile and nuclear proliferation. He could have laid out his administration’s accomplishments in building an international coalition around sanctions, but avoided any discussion of diplomacy.”
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have eased after the two Koreas agreed to cooperate closely on the upcoming Winter Olympics in the South, prompting speculation the move could open the door to talks with Pyongyang over its missile and nuclear programs.
But after the speech, Smith said, “Tokyo will be worried about the ‘bloody nose’ approach.”
“Conflict in the Korean Peninsula would not be welcome,” she said. “Strong international sanctions are welcome. As is strengthened defenses of allies in South Korea and Japan. The threat to civilians in both countries of an American preventive strike should be intolerable, and the uncertainty of initiating a second Korean War would be devastating, militarily and economically, for Japan.”
In a worst-case scenario report released in October by North Korea-watching website 38 North, the group estimated that a nuclear retaliatory strike on Tokyo would result in a death toll ranging from 200,000 to 940,000.
Despite these lingering fears, the Japanese government embraced the speech.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government “thinks highly” of the fact that Trump had used the address to renew his vows to maximize pressure on North Korea as well as to call global attention to the severity of human rights violations in the country. The top government spokesman backed Trump’s message by reiterating Tokyo’s position that it will continue to work closely with Washington and Seoul to further tighten the screws on the regime.
“I think the tone of the speech — and the emphasis on human rights abuses — will be appreciated” by Tokyo, Smith said.
“The personal costs of North Korean repression is very highly felt in Japan, where the abductees and their families engender a similar response,” she added, referring to Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s.
“If anything, the message conveyed is that the U.S. under Trump will continue increasing its pressure on North Korea, while keeping military options on the table,” Smith said.
Beyond North Korea, Trump also reiterated his stance of “peace through strength” when facing “rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values.”
In confronting these challenges, he added, “we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means of our defense,” and vowed as part of this policy to “modernize and rebuild” the U.S. nuclear arsenal, “hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression.”
Trump added the caveat that “perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment” when the world gathers to eliminate their nuclear weapons, but noted dryly that, “unfortunately, we are not there yet.”
Tokyo was expected to read this as a “strong commitment” to the U.S.-Japan security alliance, and the “sustained support of deterrence through the U.S. nuclear umbrella,” said Sebastian Maslow, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies at Kobe University.
Maslow said it could also be a boon for Japanese security policy circles in favor of the country building its own nuclear weapons.
They “will use this line to bolster their position in arguing for robust deterrence of the DPRK nuclear threat,” he said in an email, though “such a move remains unpopular among the Japanese given the country’s strong yet waning postwar anti-nuclear and pacifist norms.”
On trade, Trump, who had raised hopes in recent days of an American return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, raised eyebrows in his speech by claiming that the U.S. had “finally turned the page on decades of unfair trade deals.”
Asked about Trump’s mention of trade, Suga was stoic.
“We will continue to use our economic dialogue framework to discuss what our respective areas of interest are in terms of trade and investment and how we can cooperate in individual fields,” he said.
The U.S. leader said last week that he “would do TPP if we were able to make a substantially better deal” — a remark that caught many by surprise since Trump had pulled the U.S. out of the agreement on his first day in office.
Experts said it was important to take his apparent willingness to rejoin the TPP deal with a grain of salt, with Maslow voicing skepticism that the Trump administration would return to the framework.
“I do not foresee significant willingness within member states to unpack and substantially renegotiate the deal,” Maslow said. “Not only because this would require new complex and time-consuming negotiations but also because the likelihood of any success of such a process remains highly uncertain given the unpredictability of Trump’s foreign trade policy.
“The consensus seems to be to operationalize the framework as is and wait for a post-Trump U.S. to reopen the agreement for renegotiation,” he added.
Smith agreed, saying that the White House remained far from “resetting the table on trade,” especially the deal now known as the TPP-11.
“I think his comment on TPP was just a way of saying TPP-11 wasn’t getting away from him,” she said.
Tomohiro Osaki contributed to this report