SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Was it a bluff? A warning that Washington would shoot down North Korea's next missile test? A restatement of past policy? Or simply just what it seemed: a straightforward threat of annihilation from the president of the United States?
Officials and pundits across Asia struggled Wednesday to parse Donald Trump's vow Tuesday at the U.N. General Assembly to "totally destroy North Korea" if provoked.
Trump's threat before the world to obliterate North Korea left no doubt about his determination to stop the communist country's nuclear weapons buildup. His disparagement of the Iran nuclear deal in the same speech offered Pyongyang little hope of a negotiated solution.
In his maiden address at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump spelled out in blunt and personal terms the reasons why Kim Jong Un and his government should be treated as pariahs. It was a surprisingly brutal indictment, even by the standards of a president who has spoken about unleashing "fire and fury" on Kim's country if it didn't end its nuclear provocations.
Trump said not only has the North Korean government starved its citizens and killed opponents, it was now threatening the world with "unthinkable loss of life."
"It is time for North Korea to realize that the denuclearization is its only acceptable future," Trump said.
He offered no path toward making that future a reality.
Despite Trump's rhetoric, his administration insists it is seeking a diplomatic resolution. Any military intervention designed to eliminate the North's nuclear and missile arsenal would almost surely entail dire risks for U.S. allies in the region, particularly South Korea, lying in range of the North's vast stockpiles of weaponry.
Asked about Trump's address, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reiterated his preference Tuesday.
"We will hopefully get this resolved through diplomatic means," Mattis told reporters in Washington.
But other than using economic pressure to try to compel Pyongyang to give away its nuclear weapons — a strategy that has failed for the past decade — Trump's administration has yet to lay out a strategy for a possible negotiated settlement. In recent weeks, the administration's lack of direction has been all too apparent, as Trump and other top officials have vacillated between bellicose talk of possible military action and, at one point, even praise for Kim for a brief lull in missile tests.
"In the absence of such a policy roadmap, the president's words won't change North Korea's behavior," said Frank Jannuzi, an East Asia expert and president of the Washington-based Mansfield Foundation. "Nor will they bolster Chinese, Russian or allied confidence in the U.S. approach."
Fears of a military confrontation are increasing. North Korea conducted a series of provocative launches in recent months, including a pair of intercontinental missiles believed capable of striking the continental United States and another pair that soared over Japanese territory. It also exploded its most powerful nuclear bomb to date. Prodded by Washington, the U.N. has responded with the toughest economic sanctions on North Korea yet.
In a region well used to Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear weapons generating a seemingly never-ending cycle of threats and counter-threats, Trump's comments stood out.
South Korea officially played them down, while some politicians worried that Trump's words signaled a loss of influence for Seoul. Tokyo focused on his mention of Japanese citizens abducted by the North. Analysts across Asia expressed surprise, worry, even wry amusement, in one case, that Trump's words seemed to mirror threats normally emanating from North Korean state media.
Amid the speculation, the focus of Trump's belligerence, North Korea, remained silent in the hours after the speech.
Officials from the office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a liberal who has advocated dialogue with the North while being forced into a hawkish position by the North's weapons tests, called Trump's words a signal of Washington's strong resolve to deal with the North, but also essentially a repetition of the basic stance that all options will be considered when confronting Pyongyang.
Trump has previously threatened the North with "fire and fury." Pyongyang responded to those past remarks with a string of weapons tests, including its sixth and most powerful nuclear detonation and two missiles that flew over U.S. ally Japan.
Park Soo-hyun, a Moon spokesman, said that Trump's comments "reaffirmed the need to put maximum sanctions and pressure against North Korea's nuclear and missile provocations" so that Pyongyang realizes that abandoning its nuclear weapons is the only way forward.
Marcus Noland, a North Korea specialist with the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said in an online post that Trump's threat will feed a long-standing North Korean narrative that claims that the United States poses an existential threat.
"With those words, President Trump handed the Kim regime the soundbite of the century. It will play on a continuous loop on North Korean national television," Noland wrote.
North Korea's regular weapons tests are an attempt to create an arsenal of nuclear missiles that can threaten U.S. troops throughout Asia and the U.S. mainland. Pyongyang tested its first two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July and claims that it can now accurately reach the U.S. homeland, though outside experts say the North may still need more tests before its weapons are fully viable. Each new test pushes the nation that much closer to that goal.
Some South Korean opposition politicians saw the comments as another sign that South Korea is losing its voice in international efforts to deal with the North's nuclear program.
Trump's U.N. speech came days after U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis created unease in South Korea by saying without elaboration that the United States has military options against North Korea that wouldn't involve the destruction of Seoul. The South Korean capital is within easy artillery range of the huge array of North Korean weapons dug in along a border only an hour's drive from greater Seoul's 25 million people.
Kim Su-min, a lawmaker in the People's Party, expressed worry that South Korean officials heard nothing from Washington before both Mattis' and Trump's remarks.
"The government should comprehensively review its diplomatic and national security system and do its absolute best so that our stance on critical issues related to the existence of our country and the lives of our people doesn't go ignored," Kim said.
Diplomacy meant to rid the North of its nukes has been moribund for years, and Pyongyang has made huge strides over the last several years in its quest for nuclear tipped missiles that can reach anywhere in the world. Trump has pushed Beijing, which is the North's only major ally, to do more to influence Pyongyang's behavior, so far to no avail.
A Chinese expert on North Korea was surprised by the vehemence of Trump's speech, saying "his rhetoric is full of military force."
Cheng Xiaohe of Renmin University said in an interview that he initially thought that "the U.S. had nearly declared war on North Korea." The speech signals that "if North Korea conducts another missile test, the U.S. is very likely to intercept."
Officials in Tokyo, meanwhile, welcomed a reference by Trump to North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and '80s.
"I think it means an understanding has gotten through" to the United States and other countries, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura said, according to Kyodo News service.
Trump said, "We know it kidnapped a sweet 13-year-old Japanese girl from a beach in her own country to enslave her as a language tutor for North Korea's spies."
The girl, Megumi Yokota, was one of at least 17 people that Japan says North Korea kidnapped.
Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in South Korea, described Trump's threats as similar to the type of bluffing that North Korea has used for decades.
"It's a bit funny to see how the U.S. president behaves in exactly the same way, using exactly the same words his North Korean counterparts have been using for decades," Lankov said.
Rhetoric that isn't followed by action will eventually undermine the U.S. image internationally. "It makes American threats far less efficient," he said.
Lankov said he expects North Korea to respond to Trump's threats with "equally powerful ... equally comical" and "probably more ridiculous rhetoric."
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo and Tim Sullivan in Beijing contributed to this report.
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