President Donald Trump issued another strong warning for North Korea during his speech to South Korea’s national assembly Wednesday: “Do not underestimate us. And do not try us.”
“America does not seek conflict or confrontation, but we will never run from it,” Trump said.
The president called on all nations — including China and Russia, two of North Korea’s largest trade partners — to fully implement the most recent round of U.N. sanctions, including scaling back trade and diplomatic ties.
“You cannot support, you cannot supply, you cannot accept,” he said, adding “the longer we wait, the greater the danger grows, the fewer the options become.”
The speech was a critical moment in Mr. Trump’s 12-day, five-country trip across Asia, seen as an opportunity to reassure American allies there that the U.S. is capable of managing North Korea’s growing threats and that it had a plan for how to handle the regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Did his remarks accomplish that? We asked analysts about what Trump’s speech means for North Korea, the U.S. and its relationship with American allies across Asia.
Trump left “America first” at home. “There was no mention of the allied agenda that has cropped up in the past – no references to unfair trade, American jobs, or the need for greater allied burden-sharing,” said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The president instead “spent far more time talking about the human rights abuses of the North Korean regime than on its belligerence,” Smith said — a welcome departure from the “fire and fury” rhetoric many feared he would bring to Seoul.
Unlike previous speeches, there was “no name calling or over-the-top rhetoric — just a clear description of the consequences if North Korea initiates a military attack,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. This approach — long advocated by other world leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel — will make it easier for the U.S. to build a global coalition to isolate Pyongyang, Ruggiero said.
But there were some contradictions. “If the Kim family and its supporters in the DPRK regime are so utterly, comprehensively evil as the president detailed, then why should the United States be willing to negotiate agreements with it that would relieve sanctions and other coercive pressures on the regime so that it can be more secure?,” said George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “And, if the United States government feels about the DPRK regime as Trump said, then why on earth would Kim Jong Un believe that if he gives up all his nuclear weapons capabilities as the United States demands, Washington would still continue relieving sanctions and providing promised relief from coercion? Indeed, given how despicable the DPRK regime is, if this regime did not have nuclear weapons and conventional weapons that could quickly kill huge numbers of South Koreans, shouldn’t the United States feel a moral-political imperative to overthrow it?”
(Also, the amount of time Trump spent on South Korean history was strange, Perkovich said, an observation shared by many watching the speech on Twitter).
The president left little room for compromise or negotiation. He spoke directly to Kim Jong Un in his speech before the assembly, saying “he and his countrymen would have a better and safer future if they abandoned their nuclear ambitions,” Smith said. At the same time, “he made it clear that he would only accept complete verifiable denuclearization.”
When Trump said “I want peace through strength,” he had a dual purpose: “A warning to North Korea not to miscalculate as well as a sign for willingness to seek peace without resorting to conflict,” said Soojin Park, a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center.
The speech was clearly designed not only for South Koreans, but for an international audience. “Much of his talk about South Korea and about North Korea was really unnecessary in front of a Korean audience. This gave much of his speech the sense that he was speaking to those of us abroad, in the United States but also in China, Russia, Japan” and elsewhere, Smith said.
Trump’s warning not to underestimate the U.S. took on a different meaning than in Japan. “Saying it in Japan evoked a sense that he was referencing Japanese aggression in World War II, and that sat somewhat uncomfortably in Tokyo. But in today’s Korean peninsula [speech], it felt more like a restatement of deterrence,” Smith said.
But it was especially a message for China. “This is another message to China that Washington will not accept its flawed ‘freeze for freeze’ approach,” and instead insist that North Korea head toward denuclearization. It also sends a message to President Xi that Trump plans to address the issue during his visit there this week, Ruggiero said.
Despite Tuesday’s speech, Trump’s history of spontaneous remarks and change in positions will still make those across Asia nervous, Perkovich said. “Does the United States government actually have a strategy for dealing with North Korea? Is the president durably committed to working closely with South Korea and heeding its newly-elected leadership’s insights and concerns? Or, if President Trump does not receive the trade concessions that he wants, will he turn on the government in Seoul?”
Will Kim Jong Un hear much in this speech to suggest a path to negotiations? Hardly, Smith said. “But perhaps what the president was aiming at was a stronger bond between the U.S. and South Korea. A less pugilistic Trump, perhaps. But one that helped President Moon Jae-in demonstrate his own ability to manage America’s unpredictable new leader.”
PBS NewsHour’s Larisa Epatko reported for this story.