This post has been updated with the White House's response.
President Trump took to the floor of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday and, in his maiden speech there, called the leader of North Korea “Rocket Man,” decried “loser terrorists” and said certain parts of the world are “in fact, going to hell.”
But Trump's perhaps oddly chosen colloquialisms masked what was a pretty astounding escalation of his rhetoric when it comes to North Korea. Just to be clear: The president of the United States threatened to wipe a country of 25 million people off the map.
“Now North Korea's reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life,” Trump said. He later added: “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. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself.”
Trump's rhetoric on North Korea has been very tough before. He turned heads last month by threatening to unleash “fire and fury” if North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un, threatened the United States. But Trump's speech Tuesday ratcheted things up in two respects: saying the United States would also unleash a massive response on behalf of its allies, and threatening to “totally destroy” the country.
“Fire and fury” could be interpreted as a threat to simply remove Kim and his government; “totally destroy North Korea” seems to be a signal to the North Korean people that they, too, could face annihilation alongside their government leaders. It sounds a lot like Trump is threatening a completely unprecedented effort to wipe out an entire nation, whether through nuclear weapons or more conventional means. It's a remarkably big statement, and the White House will undoubtedly be asked to clarify.
It's also different from the “fire and fury” comment in that this was Trump delivering a prepared speech, in which his words were undoubtedly pored over extensively beforehand. The White House acknowledged after Trump made the “fire and fury” comments that they were ad-libbed, and analysts generally agreed that perhaps the commander in chief got a little carried away and became hyperbolic — as he tends to do.
After the speech, the White House seemed to try to downplay the novelty of Trump's threat, comparing it to what then-President Obama said last year. "We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals," Obama said.
Presidents have always been clear to deter threats: “We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals” -@BarackObama last year
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) September 19, 2017
But in context, Obama was actually making the case against that, adding: "But aside from the humanitarian costs of that, they are right next door to our vital ally, Republic of Korea." Obama also wasn't making a threat so much as registering a statement of fact. Trump was saying the United States might "have no choice" but to do what Obama was merely saying the U.S. was capable of.
Trump's address to the United Nations on Tuesday should erase any doubts that he is threatening a completely unprecedented military strike against North Korea. This seems to be Trump even more fully embracing the so-called Madman Theory, in which he makes himself so unpredictable that other world leaders fear setting him off.
But that approach isn't without its downsides. Retired Gen. David Petraeus described it thusly a few days back:
There is some merit to this. You can argue perhaps there is some merit to it in international relations, although it obviously can go too far. My concern there with the so-called “madman theory” — that actually [Richard] Nixon put forward through Kissinger where he had Kissinger tell the Soviets, “You know, Nixon's under a lot of pressure right now and, you know, he drinks at night sometimes, so you guys ought to be real careful. Don't push this into a crisis.” There may, again, be some merit into the madman theory until you get in a crisis. But you do not want the other side thinking you are irrational in a crisis. You do not want the other side thinking that you might be sufficiently irrational to conduct a first strike or to do something, you know, so-called “unthinkable.”
Polls show the American people are not confident in Trump's ability to handle the North Korea situation, with 61 percent saying they are “uneasy.” Trump's words Tuesday likely won't calm many fears, but he's clearly gambling on North Korea backing down in the face of big talk.