On Tuesday, President Trump threatened to exterminate more than 25 million people on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly.
Making no distinction between the regime of Kim Jong-un and the North Korean people, Trump said that if the U.S. “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 and for his regime,” he added.
Trump later posted a tweet highlighting that part of his speech, which also included threats against the government of Iran and Venezuela.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 19, 2017
Trump’s bellicose rhetoric — coming weeks after North Korea tested its strongest nuclear weapon yet, a test that came on the heels of Trump threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if Kim Jong-un issued “more threats” — was jarring, especially given Trump’s previous suggestions that he’s open to using nuclear weapons. But shortly after his speech finished, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried to frame Trump’s threat to destroy a country as just the sort of thing commanders-in-chief have to say from time to time.
Citing a comment President Obama made last year about North Korea, Sanders tweeted that “[p]residents have always been clear to deter threats.”
Presidents have always been clear to deter threats: “We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals” –@BarackObama last year
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) September 19, 2017
The point Sanders was trying to make, however, requires taking Obama’s words out of context.
During the interview in question, Obama said North Korea is “not something that lends itself to an easy solution.” Unlike Trump, Obama then mentioned reasons why armed conflict with a nuclear power located next to a key ally is a bad idea.
“We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals, but aside from the humanitarian costs of that, they are right next door to our vital ally, [the] Republic of Korea,” Obama said.
Obama went on to discuss the measures the United States was taking to try and prevent war with North Korea.
“One of the things that we have been doing is spending a lot more time positioning our missile defense systems so that even as we try to resolve the underlying development of nuclear development inside of North Korea, we’re also setting up a shield that can at least block the relatively low-level threats that they are posing right now,” Obama said.
Obama’s comments start 36 seconds in to this video:
Ironically, Obama’s view about why war with North Korea is a bad idea is one also expressed by Steve Bannon when he was still Trump’s senior strategist.
During an interview shortly before he left the White House last month, Bannon acknowledged that “[t]here’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats, forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”
On Monday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis suggested military options are available that he believes would spare South Korea. He didn’t provide any details about what those might be, however.