UNITED NATIONS — President Trump brought a characteristically confrontational message to the United Nations on Tuesday as he vowed to “totally destroy North Korea” if it attacked the United States or its allies and denounced the nuclear agreement with Iran as “an embarrassment” that he may abandon.
In his first address to the UN General Assembly, Trump framed the conflicts with “rogue regimes” North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela as a test of the international system. With typically bombastic flourishes like vowing to crush “loser terrorists” and labeling North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, “Rocket Man,” Trump at times dispensed with the restrained rhetoric many American presidents use at the UN.
“If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph,” he said as the audience of presidents, prime ministers, monarchs, and diplomats remained largely stone-faced. “When decent people and nations become bystanders to history, the forces of destruction only gather power and strength.” He asserted that some parts of the world “are going to hell.”
He also sought to explain his America First policy to an audience concerned about what it means for US leadership in the world. From the dais of an organization meant to bring nations together, Trump argued that nationalism can be the foundation for strong nations to join common causes. He repeatedly used the word “sovereignty” to describe his approach in a setting where the term traditionally has been brandished by nations such as Russia and China to deflect criticism of their actions.
Trump singled out North Korea for his harshest words, broadening his indictment of the Pyongyang government beyond just its pursuit of nuclear weapons to its treatment of its own people and captured foreigners such as the American college student who died shortly after being released and sent back to the United States.
“No nation on earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles,” Trump said. “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.”
Without mentioning it by name, Trump also chastised China for continuing to deal with its rogue neighbor. “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 president said.
He went on to assail the Iran agreement, which was negotiated by President Barack Obama and leaders of five other powers and ratified by the UN Security Council to curb Tehran’s nuclear program for a decade in exchange for lifting international sanctions. Under US law, Trump has until Oct. 15 to certify whether Iran is complying with the agreement, which he has done twice so far since taking office. But he has made it clear that he would prefer not to do so again, which could result in the unraveling of the accord.
“The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” Trump told the UN audience. “Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it, believe me.”
The tough words cheered the delegation from Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and advisers applauded. In his own speech later, he said Trump had “rightly called the nuclear deal with Iran an embarrassment” and pointed to North Korea as an example.
“In the last few months, we’ve all seen how dangerous even a few nuclear weapons can be in the hands of a small rogue regime,” Netanyahu said. “Now imagine the danger of hundreds of nuclear weapons in the reins of a vast Iranian empire, with the missiles to deliver them anywhere on Earth.”
Others called Trump’s speech over-the-top. “If Trump was determined to demonstrate to the world that he is unhinged and an imminent danger to world peace, he has succeeded with this speech and will only make it harder for him to win over the world to his self-destructive goals,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based group that is critical of the Tehran government but advocates more engagement.
Neither Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, nor Mohammad Javad Zarif, its foreign minister, were in the hall for Trump’s speech. North Korea’s ambassador left his seat before the president started speaking. The rest of the audience gave Trump polite but unenthusiastic applause.
President Emmanuel Macron of France, who has a friendly relationship with Trump, took sharp exception to the most combative points in the American leader’s speech.
In his General Assembly address, Macron called the Iran agreement “solid, robust, and verifiable” and said renouncing it would be a “grave error.”
While he shared Trump’s assertion that North Korea’s nuclear belligerence was dangerous and unacceptable, Macron said multilateral diplomatic pressure was the best solution. “France rejects escalation and will not close any door to dialogue,” he said.
The French president also confronted a big issue Trump conspicuously omitted: climate change. “The planet will not negotiate with us,” Macron said, referring to the Paris climate accord that Trump has renounced.
He added that he hoped the United States might yet rejoin the accord. “I fully respect the decision of the United States, but the door will always be open,” he said.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, likewise implicitly rebuffed Trump on climate change.
“We know enough today to act,” he said as he opened the annual UN General Assembly session. “The science is unassailable.”
Guterres criticized what he called “closed doors and open hostility” in the face of vast refugee crises and called on countries to treat those crossing borders with “simple decency and human compassion.”