President Donald Trump has hurled plenty of harsh words at North Korea before, but nothing approaches his promise at the United Nations today that if forced to defend itself or its allies, the United States would “totally destroy” the country. He did not promise a military response of unprecedented size and strength, as he has before. He did not even threaten “fire and fury,” as he had in some previous, ad libbed remarks. Speaking from a prepared speech in front of leaders and diplomats from more than 100 countries, the president of the United States pledged to wipe an entire nation off the face of the Earth. Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev’s 1956 boast that “we will bury you” left open some room for interpretation; this did not.
Trump seems to ascribe to the theory that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (or “rocket man,” as the president has taken to calling him) only understands threats and only responds to force. There is, of course, no evidence that he or any of his predecessors has been cowed by such tactics. But even if Trump is right, he has dangerously escalated his rhetorical war by threatening not just the Kim government or the North Korean military but the entire nation and its 25 million people. Heaven forbid, should we ever find ourselves in military conflict with North Korea, President Trump has made the fight all the more difficult and dangerous by proclaiming that our aim would be not just regime change or an end to the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs but what sounds an awful lot like genocide.
For all his efforts this week to put some gloss of internationalism on his “America first” philosophy, President Trump cannot help but reveal himself as a bullying adolescent, obsessed with force and might. A day before his speech, Trump mused to French President Emile Macron that he would like to replicate the Bastille Day military parade in Washington on the 4th of July. “It was military might and, I think, a tremendous thing for France and the spirit of France,” he said, not for the first time equating a nation’s sense of self-worth with ostentatious displays of its military strength. By that token, Trump must assume spirits in North Korea, where parades of tanks and missiles are the stock in trade of the Kim regimes, are at an unparalleled high.
The United States is not generally a pacifist country. It has regularly engaged its military in conflicts around the globe — including some notable occasions when it should not have — and trust in and respect for the armed forces has been higher than that for nearly any other institution in the nation for generations. But we are not warmongers. We are not bloodthirsty conquerors.
We have no quibble with the president’s denunciations of the Kim regime as “depraved” and oppressive. It shows no respect for human rights, and its nuclear and missile programs indeed represent a threat to innocent people across the globe. But Trump is both threatening even greater harm to the North Korean people than its own government has inflicted and is only increasing the likelihood that the Kim regime will consider it necessary to maintain its nuclear program or even launch a first strike. The president’s small caveat — “The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for. Let’s see how they do” — is not altogether reassuring.
There are no good solutions to the threat posed by North Korea, and there never have been. But President Trump’s threats only make the situation more dire and the options worse.