US President Donald Trump escalated his standoff with 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 US 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.
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.”
His remarks rattled world leaders gathered in the green-marbled U.N. General Assembly hall, where minutes earlier UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for statesmanship, saying: “We must not sleepwalk our way into war.”
Trump’s most direct military threat to attack North Korea, in his debut appearance at the General Assembly, was his latest expression of concern about Pyongyang’s repeated launching of ballistic missiles over Japan and underground nuclear tests.
His advisers say he is concerned about North Korea’s advances in missile technology and the few means available for a peaceful response without China’s help.
Inside the hall, one man in the audience covered his face with his hands shortly after Trump made his “totally destroy” comment. 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.
Trump did not back down, instead later tweeting out the line in his speech vowing to destroy North Korea if needed.
A junior North Korean diplomat sat in the delegation’s front-row seat for Trump’s speech, the North Korean UN mission said. The mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would do everything in her power to ensure a diplomatic solution. “Anything else would lead to disaster,” she 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.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, who earlier this month raised the prospect of a “massive military response” if needed, on Tuesday told Pentagon reporters that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was working to resolve the crisis diplomatically.
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 UN members to confront global challenges.
But Democrat Ed Markey of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee denounced Trump’s remarks, telling CNN the president had yet to exhaust his other options in encouraging Pyongyang to negotiate.
In a thunderous 41-minute speech, Trump took aim at Iran’s nuclear ambitions and regional influence, Venezuela’s collapsing democracy and the threat of Islamist extremists.
“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 of his January 20 inaugural address when 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 UN member states to work together to isolate the Kim government until it ceases its “hostile” behavior.
In an apparent 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.”
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.
“We cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program,” he said. He said the Iranian government “masks a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted a withering response: “Trump’s ignorant hate speech belongs in medieval times –not the 21st Century UN – unworthy of a reply. Fake empathy for Iranians fools no one.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, in his UN speech, said his country would not close the door to negotiations over North Korea and staunchly defended the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. “Renouncing it would be a grave error,” Macron said.
Trump called the collapsing situation in Venezuela “completely unacceptable” and warned the United States was considering what further actions it can take. “We cannot stand by and watch,” he said.
Venezuela rejected Trump’s threats and said it was prepared to resist any US actions, even a military invasion.
At what was billed as an “anti-imperialist” rally in Caracas, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro described Trump as “the new Hitler of international politics.”
“The magnate thinks he is the owner of the world, but no one threatens Venezuela,” he said.
Financial markets reacted little 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.”