WASHINGTON – Branding North Korea’s leadership “depraved,” President Donald Trump told Americans on Tuesday that Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear missiles could “very soon threaten our homeland” and vowed a continued campaign of maximum pressure to keep that from happening.
In his first State of the Union speech to the U.S. Congress, Trump’s tough rhetoric underscored persistent tensions despite recent talks between North and South Korea that led to Pyongyang’s agreement to participate in next month’s Winter Olympic games in South Korea.
“North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland,” Trump said. “We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from ever happening.”
“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 to our allies,” he said.
North-South negotiations earlier this month have eased fears of war on the Korean peninsula that were in part stoked by an exchange of insults and threats between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump and top advisers have publicly welcomed the talks but U.S. officials have said privately that Pyongyang might be trying to drive a wedge between allies Washington and Seoul.
Attending the State of the Union address as Trump’s guests were the parents of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who died in June shortly after he was released by North Korea in a coma. “Tonight, we pledge to honor Otto’s memory with total American resolve,” Trump said.
But he offered no new prescription or specifics on how he intended to rein in North Korea.
The Trump administration has repeatedly stressed its preference for a diplomatic solution to the Korea tensions while saying all options are on the table.
But U.S. officials have said internal debate on military action, including the possibility of a limited pre-emptive strike on a nuclear or missile site, has lost some momentum in recent weeks after the North-South talks ahead of ahead of the Olympics.
Earlier on Tuesday, the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korea’s nuclear program had made strides in recent months but the country has not yet demonstrated all the components of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), including a survivable re-entry vehicle that can deliver a nuclear weapon.
Air Force Gen. Paul Selva also said he was confident that if required the United States would be able to destroy “most” of North Korea’s nuclear missile infrastructure.
In November, North Korea said it had successfully tested a new type of ICBM that could reach all of the U.S. mainland. U.S.-based experts said data from the test appeared to support that.
Trump refrained from referring to Kim as “Rocket Man,” a disparaging nickname he has used before. But he insisted that “no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea.”
Trump said that among the witnesses to the “ominous” nature of the North Korean government was Ji Seong-ho, a defector who escaped from North Korea after being run over by a train while trying to steal coal and suffering torture and starvation.
Joining Trump’s guests in the gallery, Ji, who lost a hand and foot, now heads a group that rescues and resettles North Korean refugees.
Trump had recently held back on harsher language after having threatened last year to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea.
Pyongyang, in turn, has threatened to target the U.S. territory of Guam in the Pacific Ocean. Kim has shown no sign of willingness to give in to U.S. demands and negotiate away a weapons program he sees as vital to his survival.
In his speech, Trump also urged bitterly divided Republicans and Democrats to work toward compromises on immigration and infrastructure after a bruising year of partisan battles that centered on Trump’s leadership.
“Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve,” Trump said in his first State of the Union address, delivered in the chamber of the House of Representatives.
Trump used the speech, given annually by presidents to Congress, to try to overcome doubts about his presidency at a time when he is battling a probe into his campaign’s alleged ties with Russia and suffering low job approval ratings. The speech was short on details of his policy proposals.
While Trump called for bipartisanship, evidence of the deep divide between the parties was clear. Republican lawmakers cheered wildly at the president’s applause lines, while Democrats often sat in their seats silently.
Whether Trump would follow through on his appeal for bipartisan harmony was far from clear. Trump’s past attempts at a unifying message have been undermined by rancorous tweets and divisive statements that have angered Democrats and frequently annoyed lawmakers in his own Republican Party.
The unity plea will first be put to the test in his drive for a compromise on protecting 1.8 million “Dreamers” — people brought illegally to the country as children — who face a March 5 deadline on whether they can begin to be deported.
Trump said he was “extending an open hand” for an immigration deal and that he would provide Dreamers a pathway to citizenship over 10 to 12 years in exchange for funding for a border wall with Mexico and restrictions on legal immigration.
Trump called his plan a “down-the-middle compromise,” but some Democrats booed when he said he wanted to rein in “chain migration,” the ability of legal immigrants to bring a wide-ranging number of family members into the country.
“Let’s come together, set politics aside and finally get the job done,” Trump said.
Trump took credit for U.S. economic gains including a soaring stock market and a low jobless rate. He boasted about the economic growth he believes will result from tax cuts Republicans pushed through Congress late last year.
“This is our new American moment. There has never been a better time to start living the American Dream,” he said.
Trump said he would like a compromise over a plan to rebuild aging roads, bridges and other infrastructure. He said he wanted legislation to generate at least $1.5 trillion through a combination of federal, state and local spending as well as private-sector contributions.
“I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve,” he said.
Trump was calling for the type of cooperation between Republicans and Democrats that has eluded him during a rocky first year in office.
While the rhetoric was often high-flying, Trump provided some reminders of partisan battles over the past year.
He singled out a speech guest, 12-year-old Preston Sharp, for leading an effort to put American flags on the graves of 40,000 veterans, saying the initiative was “why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”
His belittling of National Football League players who refused to stand for the anthem in protest against police shootings of minorities dominated headlines last autumn.