Why Trump’s threat to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea is extraordinary — even for him
President Trump took to the floor of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday and, in his maiden speech there, called the leader of North Korea “Rocket Man,” decried “loser terrorists” and said certain parts of the world are “in fact, going to hell.”
But Trump's perhaps oddly chosen colloquialisms masked what was a pretty astounding escalation of his rhetoric when it comes to North Korea. Just to be clear: The president of the United States threatened to wipe a country of 25 million people off the map.
“Now North Korea's reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life,” Trump said. He later added: “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. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself.”
Trump's rhetoric on North Korea has been very tough before. He turned heads last month by threatening to unleash “fire and fury” if North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un, threatened the United States. But Trump's speech Tuesday ratcheted things up in two respects: saying the United States would also
unleash a massive response on behalf of its allies, and threatening to “totally destroy” the country.
It's also different from the “fire and fury” comment in that this was Trump delivering a prepared speech, in which his words were undoubtedly pored over extensively beforehand. The White House acknowledged after Trump made the “fire and fury” comments that they were ad-libbed, and analysts generally agreed that perhaps the commander in chief got a little carried away and became hyperbolic — as he tends to do.
After the speech, the White House seemed to try to downplay the novelty of Trump's threat, comparing it to what then-President Obama said last year. "We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals," Obama said.
But that approach isn't without its downsides. Retired Gen. David Petraeus described it thusly a few days back:
There is some merit to this. You can argue perhaps there is some merit to it in international relations, although it obviously can go too far. My concern there with the so-called “madman theory” — that actually [Richard] Nixon put forward through Kissinger where he had Kissinger tell the Soviets, “You know, Nixon's under a lot of pressure right now and, you know, he drinks at night sometimes, so you guys ought to be real careful. Don't push this into a crisis.” There may, again, be some merit into the madman theory until you get in a crisis. But you do not want the other side thinking you are irrational in a crisis. You do not want the other side thinking that you might be sufficiently irrational to conduct a first strike or to do something, you know, so-called “unthinkable.”Polls show the American people are not confident in Trump's ability to handle the North Korea situation, with 61 percent saying they are “uneasy.” Trump's words Tuesday likely won't calm many fears, but he's clearly gambling on North Korea backing down in the face of big talk.