By Steve Holland, Jeff Mason
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump escalated his threats against North Korea over its nuclear challenge on Tuesday, threatening to “totally destroy” the country of 26 million people and mocking its leader, Kim Jong Un, as a “rocket man.”
In a hard-edged speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Trump offered a grim portrait of a world in peril, adopted a more confrontational approach to solving global challenges from Iran to Venezuela, and gave an unabashed defense of U.S. sovereignty.
“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,” Trump told the 193-member world body, sticking closely to a script.
His remarks rattled the leaders gathered before him in the green-marbled U.N. General Assembly hall, where minutes earlier U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had appealed for statesmanship.
As loud, startled murmurs filled the hall, Trump described Kim in an acid tone, saying, “Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime.”
Trump’s most direct military threat to attack North Korea was his latest expression of concern about Pyongyang’s repeated launching of ballistic missiles over Japan and underground nuclear tests.
The comments, in Trump’s debut appearance at the General Assembly, reflected what his advisers say is concern about North Korea’s advances in missile technology and the few means available for a peaceful response without China’s help.
One man in the audience covered his face with his hands shortly after Trump made his “totally destroy” comment.
‘WRONG SPEECH, AT THE WRONG TIME’
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom crossed her arms.
“It was the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience,” Wallstrom later told the BBC.
North Korea’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A junior North Korean diplomat sat in the delegation’s front-row seat for Trump’s speech, the North Korean U.N. mission said.
Trump’s saber-rattling rhetoric, with the bare-knuckled style he used to win election last November, was in contrast to the comments of some of his own Cabinet members who have stated a preference for a diplomatic solution.
Reaction around the United States was mixed. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, tweeted that Trump, a fellow Republican, “gave a strong and needed challenge” to U.N. members to confront global challenges.
But Democrat Ed Markey of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee denounced Trump’s remarks in a CNN interview, saying the president had yet to exhaust his other options in encouraging Pyongyang to negotiate.
“He engages in escalatory language that only induces further paranoia in Kim,” Markey said. “The least we should be able to say is that we tried, we really tried, to avoid a nuclear showdown between our two countries.”
In a thunderous 41-minute speech, Trump also took aim at Iran’s nuclear ambitions and regional influence, Venezuela’s collapsing democracy and the threat of Islamist extremists.
He also criticized the Cuban government.
PARTS OF THE WORLD ‘GOING TO HELL’
“Major portions of the world are in conflict and some in fact are going to hell,” he said.
His speech recalled the fiery nationalist language he used in his Jan. 20 inaugural address in which he pledged to end what he called an “American carnage” of rusted factories and crime.
His strongest words were directed at North Korea. He urged the United Nations member states to work together to isolate the Kim government until it ceases its “hostile” behavior.
He said North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles “threatens the entire world with unthinkable cost of human life.”
In what may have been a veiled prod at China, the North’s major trading partner, Trump said: “It is an outrage that some nations would not only trade with such a regime but would arm, supply and financially support a country that imperils the world with nuclear conflict.”
Shortly before Trump’s speech, Guterres appealed for statesmanship to avoid war with North Korea, saying: “We must not sleepwalk our way into war.”
The U.N. Security Council has unanimously imposed nine rounds of sanctions on North Korea since 2006 and Guterres appealed for that 15-member body to maintain its unity.
Turning to Iran, Trump called the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama, an embarrassment and hinted that he may not recertify the agreement when it comes up for a mid-October deadline.
“I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it,” he said.
He called Iran an “economically depleted rogue state” that exports violence.
There was no immediate comment from either Iran’s U.N. delegation or its foreign ministry in Tehran.
The speech marked Trump’s latest attempt to lay out his America First vision for a foreign policy aimed at downgrading global bureaucracies, basing alliances on shared interests, and steering Washington away from nation-building exercises abroad.
Trump said the United States does not seek to impose its will on other nations and will respect other countries’ sovereignty. He said the U.S. military would soon be the strongest it has ever been.
Trump called the collapsing situation in Venezuela “completely unacceptable” and said the United States cannot stand by and watch. He warned the United States was considering what further actions it can take.
“We cannot stand by and watch,” he said.
The Venezuelan government rejected Trump’s criticism and accused him in a statement of inciting “a campaign of aggression against Venezuela.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a former U.N. ambassador due to address the world body later on Tuesday, said in a statement: “In over 30 years in my experience with the U.N., I never heard a bolder or more courageous speech.”
Financial markets showed little reaction to Trump’s speech, with most major assets hovering near the unchanged mark on the day.
“He stuck with his script,” said Lennon Sweeting, chief market strategist at XE.com in Toronto. “The dollar/yen jumped around a bit but it’s basically flat. I don’t think we will see any more volatility out of this.”
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols, Arshad Mohammed, John Irish, Parisa Hafezi, David Brunnstrom, Yara Bayoumy and Anthony Boadle at the UNITED NATIONS, Richard Leong in NEW YORK and Dan Williams in JERUSALEM; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Howard Goller