In his first State of the Union address, Trump warned that North Korea could “very soon” threaten the United States with nuclear missiles.
Calling on Congress to lift budgetary caps and boost spending on the military, Trump said that “unmatched power is the surest means of our defence.” He added that the U.S. must mobilize and rebuild its nuclear arsenal to deter any acts of aggression as well as maintain its campaign of “maximum pressure” against the “depraved” North Korean regime.
“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation. I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position,” he said.
“We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies.”
Du Hyeogn Cha, a visiting scholar at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said that for North Korea, it has to hurt that Trump declared the country as a regime that cannot co-exist with the founding values of the United States.
“He made it clear that his ‘maximum pressure and engagement’ policy will continue to be the only way going forward,” he said.
“It was probably the worst message he could deliver to the North without issuing a direct military threat.”
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University and a security adviser to South Korea’s presidential office, says Trump likely saw North Korea’s outreach over the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics as a clear sign that pressure and sanctions are working.
Trump’s speech came just after an American professor, once touted as the top candidate to be the next U.S. ambassador to South Korea, published an op-ed criticizing the administration’s approach to North Korea.
Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University, had been expected for months to take on the role as ambassador in Seoul, but is no longer being considered, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
WATCH: Donald Trump called for a restoration to funding of the military and its nuclear program to deter any acts of aggression, as part of his State of the Union address.
Cha’s op-ed in the Washington Post said that the answer to North Korean aggression is not a preventative military strike, “as some Trump administration officials have suggested.” The prospect of a limited “bloody-nose” strike has been raised as a possible way to get North Korea to stop expanding its nuclear program without triggering a full-scale war.
A pre-emptive strike would only delay North Korea’s nuclear progress, Cha wrote, and would put Korean lives and the lives of Americans living in South Korea at risk.
“To be clear: The president would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-size U.S. city — Pittsburgh, say, or Cincinnati — on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of U.S. kinetic power.”
He also wrote that he had raised these concerns with the Trump administration while he was being considered for ambassador.
A former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, also said that he wouldn’t gamble on a “bloody-nose” strike. “I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think you can do that,” he said in an interview with Defense News published on Wednesday.
North Korea responds
North Korea hit back at Trump’s comments on Wednesday, issuing a report that accused the U.S. of human rights violations. It said the Trump administration was a billionaires’ club that harbours a “policy of racism” while denying freedom of the press and health coverage to citizens.
The “White Paper on Human Rights Violations in the U.S. in 2017” was issued by the Institute of International Studies in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and circulated by its diplomatic mission in Geneva.
“Racial discrimination and misanthropy are serious maladies inherent to the social system of the U.S., and they have been aggravated since Trump took office,” the North Korean paper said. The Charlottesville riot in August 2017 at which a woman was killed was a “typical example” of American racism, it said.
The United States is one of few countries that have failed to offer paid maternity leave, and many sick citizens cannot afford to pay their medical fees, it added.
“The U.S., ‘guardian of democracy’ and ‘human rights champion,’ is kicking up the human rights racket but it can never camouflage its true identity as the gross violator of human rights.”
— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press