In a speech that will long be remembered for its ugly belligerence, President Trump told the UN General Assembly last week that “if it is forced to defend itself,” the United States was prepared to “totally destroy” North Korea: not just its military, or its leaders, but the entire population. To many heads of state, a threat evoking the destruction of both World War II and the Korean War violated the very idea of the UN as a body dedicated to resolving global tensions with peaceful means.
“This was a bombastic, nationalist speech,” declared Margot Wallstrom, the foreign minister of Sweden, who grimly watched Trump’s outburst with folded arms. “I must say that we consider any type of military solution absolutely inappropriate,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a German newspaper. Experts on North Korea, meanwhile, argued that the speech played right into Kim Jong-un’s hands by proving his claim that the United States is North Korea’s mortal enemy.
“President Trump has handed the North Koreans the sound bite of the century,” wrote Marcus Noland, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics who is well-known for his critical analyses of North Korea. “That footage will be used time and time and time again on North Korea’s state television channel.”
Sure enough, Kim followed Trump’s speech with what might be called the insult of the century. In an unprecedented move that sent the Internet into a miasma of laughter and shock, he responded personally to Trump’s threat by calling him a “dotard” and a “frightened dog” that “has rendered the world restless through threats and blackmail against all countries in the world.”
“On behalf of the dignity and honor of my state and people and on my own,” Kim said, “I will make the man holding the prerogative of the supreme command in the U.S. pay dearly for his speech.” He told Trump to expect “the highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.” Later, his foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, suggested that might include a hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean—and then upped the ante by accusing Trump of making a unilateral “declaration of war” against North Korea.