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. 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.
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.