The opening of the United Nations General Assembly has historically been a chance for world leaders to trade platitudes about peace. This year’s edition of the U.N. jamboree may have increased the risks of a major conflict in Asia.
U.S. President Donald Trump told the assembly that he would “have no choice but to totally destroy” North Korea if the U.S. is “forced to defend itself or its allies” from Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. In the days that followed, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, threatened to punish the “dotard” Trump, and its foreign minister told the General Assembly that it is “inevitable” that Pyongyang’s missiles will strike U.S. targets. Trump responded with more bellicose talk via Twitter.
Foreign diplomats and politicians were profoundly unnerved by the U.S. president’s performance. It is possible that he had not meant to be quite so incendiary. Trump’s initial warning to North Korea, and his attendant belittling of Kim as “Rocket Man,” was clearly a television sound bite meant for his domestic political base. As soon as he had dropped his rhetorical bomb, he switched to thanking China and Russia for supporting U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang. He may have hoped that his U.N. audience, and even the North Koreans, would understand that he is still open to diplomacy on the crisis. If so, his message got a bit lost.