President Trump’s UNGA speech had one of the most remarkable passages ever heard in that building:

If this is not twisted enough, now North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life …

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.  Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.

The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.  That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for.  Let’s see how they (sic) do.

Whooosh. Totally destroy North Korea! And Rocketman himself!

Isn’t that a bit … reckless? Or even excessive?

As I’ve explained here at length previously (see eg here and here), the North Korea regime poses some unique problems for international negotiation:

Classic blackmailers derive their power from various sources. They know things that the blackmailee does not want revealed. They are willing to reveal them, unless the blackmailee pays a price.

But this in turn rests upon key assumptions. Namely that the blackmailee is unable to threaten the blackmailer. And that the blackmailee is not ready to take the pain of the revelations. In other words, the sanction of the victim – the willingness of the blackmailee to submit:

I saw that there comes a point, in the defeat of any man of virtue, when his own consent is needed for evil to win—and that no manner of injury done to him by others can succeed if he chooses to withhold his consent.

I saw that I could put an end to your outrages by pronouncing a single word in my mind. I pronounced it. The word was “No.”

Enter President Trump. What if he says ‘No’?

Look closely at what he’s saying at UNGA:

If [the USA] is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea

Note the IF. It has two parts:

USA forced to defend itself

USA forced to defend its allies

It’s interesting to consider what forced means in this context. After all, you’re ‘forced’ to do something only if you allow yourself to be forced.

But in the negotiation context, this statement cuts across North Korea blackmail:

Attack us (or, maybe, attack South Korea) and you will be obliterated – even if South Korea and anyone else in the neighbourhood takes a big hit too!

It denies Pyongyang the option of ‘mutually assured destruction’:

You hurt us? We obliterate you!

Such language has the great virtue of being clear. It ends a signal to South Korea and China/Japan/Russia:

You guys have an incentive to work with us to keep Rocketman firmly in his non-nuclear box! If it all goes wrong, we guarantee a real mess that might well affect you adversely.

Hence these reasonable passages emphasising the merits of a joint tough approach:

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.  No nation on earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles.

The United Nations Security Council recently held two unanimous 15-0 votes adopting hard-hitting resolutions against North Korea, and I want to thank China and Russia for joining the vote to impose sanctions, along with all of the other members of the Security Council.  Thank you to all involved.

But we must do much more.  It is time for all nations to work together to isolate the Kim regime until it ceases its hostile behavior.


The whole international nuclear non-proliferation system has been (arguably) one of the great global policy shared successes since WW2. Nuclear weapons stocks have fallen considerably. Even if many nations resent the status of the ‘nuclear powers’, life goes on quite well without anyone threatening all-round nuclear annihilation.

The ‘rogue’ truculent defiance of North Korea and its nuclear missile programme is an important threat to this benign state of affairs. If North Korea gets away with it, might not others try the same thing?

There is no subtle private way to avoid being blackmailed. So why not spell out publicly that any blackmailing that gets out of hand will end in something drastic happening to the blackmailer?