SEOUL >> Was it a bluff? A warning that Washington would shoot down North Korea’s next missile test? A simple restatement of past policy? Officials and pundits across Asia struggled Wednesday to parse U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat to “totally destroy North Korea” if provoked.
Amid the speculation, the focus of Trump’s belligerence, North Korea, remained silent in the hours after the speech Tuesday at the U.N. General assembly.
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.
Officials from the office of 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 essentially a repetition of a basic U.S. policy.
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.
A South Korean presidential official said Trump’s comments are mostly a repetition of a basic stance that all options will be considered when confronting North Korea.
Park Soo-hyun, a Moon spokesman, said the amount of time Trump spent on North Korea in his speech shows how seriously Washington takes the issue.
Trump’s comments “reaffirmed the need to put maximum sanctions and pressure against North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations,” so that Pyongyang realizes denuclearization is the only way forward for the future, Park said.
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, said South Korean military officials had no communication with the Pentagon before Mattis’ remarks, and no one in Seoul heard from the White House before Trump’s speech.
This has prompted worries about the communication channel with the United States. “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, he said, 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.
In a list of accusations against North Korea, 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.
The issue has complicated Japan’s relations with North Korea, as it seeks the return of those kidnapped while also lining up with the U.S. to take a tough stand against North Korea’s weapons tests.
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.”