Trump’s Threat to ‘Totally Destroy’ North Korea is Illegal
Donald Trump’s comments at the UN General Assembly violate international law, and the world should hold him to account, says Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The UN General Assembly has heard from both Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In his address, Trump threatened to, “Totally destroy North Korea.”
DONALD TRUMP: 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.
AARON MATÉ: Trump also took aim at Iran, calling it “a murderous regime,” and also suggesting he pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. Netanyahu said afterwards he has “never heard a bolder or more courageous speech.” Later on, Netanyahu took the podium and made similar bellicose remarks.
Joining me is Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies. Phyllis, welcome. Let’s start with those comments on North Korea. Speaking in front of the UN where it’s illegal to threaten another member state. Right in front of them, threatening another member state with destruction.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: This was an extraordinary speech in a whole host of words. There has never been a speech like this from a head of state at the United Nations. I don’t know that there has ever been a speech, certainly not at the General Assembly, by anyone who made these kinds of threats and these kinds of absolute dismissal of the UN Charter, standards of the United Nations, let alone any understanding of diplomacy. Using this language, Aaron, that you just referred to, “to totally destroyed North Korea,” that’s never been heard, words like that in the United Nations. He didn’t say he would destroy ‘Rocket Man’, the dismissive name he gives for the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. He said “We will totally North Korea,” that means that it’s a call for genocide against 25 million people that happened to live in North Korea. “It was a reckless regime,” he said; and he defined that, he said, “It’s a reckless regime that speaks openly of mass murder.” Exactly what he had just done two sentences earlier when he said “We will totally destroy North Korea.” That is, as you say, a violation. It’s not only a violation of at the United Nations, it’s a violation of international law under the UN Charter, which in Article 2, paragraph 4 says explicitly that “Member states shall refrain from threatening or using force.” Either one; either a threat or the use of force is illegal under international law in the UN Charter. So here he is in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations, doing precisely what he condemns North Korea for, speaking openly of mass murder. It was unprecedented.
AARON MATÉ: You know this is maybe tangential, but are there any grounds here for a member of the UN to bring a resolution against Trump for this apparent violation of the Charter?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Absolutely. This could happen as a General Assembly resolution. It could happen in the Security Council. It could happen in the International Court of Justice for that matter. But the problem is not legal. There are plenty of legal mechanisms for these things. The problem is political will. What world leaders prepared to stand up to Donald Trump? Despite the visible anger on the faces of many during the speech, there was applause on at least three occasions during the speech. It was sparse; it was scattered; but there was applause. There were some people there, the one that I saw in the coverage I was watching on television showed Bibi Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister applauding with perhaps more exuberance than anybody else in the General Assembly Chamber. But this is a matter of political will. What country is prepared to stand up to the United States, particularly in the context of this president who is prepared to state openly that he is calling for the mass murder of 25 million North Koreans. Yeah, this has never happened before.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, again, Netanyahu’s words were “In over 30 years in my experience with the UN, I have never heard of bolder or more courageous speech”. Now, in Netanyahu’s speech, he linked the Iran issue with the North Korea issue. In advocating for why he said the Iran nuclear deal must either be fixed or it must be nixed. He said those who defend the Iran nuclear deal are the same who also defended the Iran nuclear deal, which I’m presuming he’s referring to the deal that the Clinton administration made with North Korea in the 1990s. He’s saying that these two examples are analogous, and that they point to the fact that these deals don’t work.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well the problem is he’s wrong. The 6-party talks on North Korea did work. They stopped the Korean nuclear program for quite some years and set it back significantly, and it stopped the possibility of another war in the Korean Peninsula. So it did in fact work. Where they are similar is in the notion that one, they both have worked, but two, they both were deals that were signed off not by the United States and North Korea or the United States and Iran, they were groups of nations. In the case of the Iran deal, this was not simply the US and Iran signing an agreement. This as a deal that was crafted between all five members of the UN Security Council, meaning all five recognized official, legal as it were, nuclear powers: the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France; and as well as the country of Germany was part of it as well. It did not involve the other unacknowledged nuclear countries led by Netanyahu’s own country, Israel, India, and Pakistan, the other nuclear states. But it did involved the five recognized nuclear states, plus Germany, so that any effort by the United States to pull out, the United States of course can pull out of any deal it wants, but that doesn’t mean the deal ends. The deal remains because there are five other countries that supported the deal with Iran, so six other countries that have signed on to it. They’re not going anywhere. They have made clear there’s going to be no new deal here. This is the deal that exists. The US could walk away from it, but it’s not going to get a “better deal” as Trump indicated he would try for much earlier.
He hinted. He said, “I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it.” Really? But he did not directly say that he would pull out of the deal. So far, all indications are that he will remain, at least technically, within the deal. The danger is, of course, that he will try hard to have US policies that undermine the deal and that push Iran to reject it because the US is violating it. That’s the real danger that we face.
We also heard some new claims about Venezuela; new threats against Venezuela. He did not use the word “regime change” but he spoke about socialism in a much more direct way than Trump usually does. He said that “The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.” And then went on to say that socialism and communism are inherently bad systems that must be destroyed, must be overthrown. And he called for the world to unite around helping the Venezuelan people as he put it, “regain their freedom, recover their country and restore their democracy,” which in the US context is very close to talking about regime change. In another context, it might mean something else, but that was this context and this president.
It was a rather extraordinary thing, again, like Bush before him when he had the so-called “Axis of Evil” back in 2002. Trump now has his three countries that he is targeting: North Korea, Iran and Venezuela. And in the context of that of course, attacking the United Nations itself, claiming among other things that the US is being forced to spend a disproportionate amount of money on UN dues, when in fact, the amount that the US pays, the 22% of United Nations dues that the US pays is precisely calibrated to correspond to the percentage of the global economy that the US controls. It’s actually slightly less that the percentage controlled by the United States.
So, it’s just a lie that he just threw out there saying that it’s disproportionate and we’re not going to take it anymore. He did that in the same way that early in his speech today, he spoke about how great it was that very soon the US will be spending almost $700 billion on its military. And he said that with a tone that implied that he assumed that the gathered ambassadors. and secretaries of state, and ministers of foreign affairs and heads of state gathered in the General Assembly Hall were somehow going to be thrilled that the US is now going to be spending almost $700 billion on the military knowing that $30 billion could solve the problem of clean water for the entire world for 10 years, knowing that that money is going to be used to further threaten countries all around the world, and yet he said it as something that he was enormously proud of, when the money for that has come from among other things, stripping the state department, the diplomats of 30% of their budget to go to the military.
There will be no diplomacy. There will only be military. And yet, this was something that Trump treated as something that the other countries listening should be very happy about.
AARON MATÉ: Phyllis, I want to get back to North Korea for a second because it’s not just arguably the most dangerous crisis out there today, but it also pertains to Trump and Netanyahu’s efforts to undermine the Iran nuclear deal. Now, when you said that the North Korea deal worked, I mean the counter-argument to that from someone who opposes it will say, “Look, now North Korea has nuclear weapons, so it didn’t work.” But what that is missing, and what I hope you could talk about, is the history that they’re missing there, which is that we had a deal in the mid ’90s. Both sides had some problems living up to their commitments, but I think arguably and especially it was the US that was supposed to supply oil, supposed to undo economic sanctions, that did not follow through. I wonder if you could talk about that history for those who think that the North Korea deal collapsed simply because North Korea took advantage of it.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: You know, this is one of these things, in these kinds of deals all sides have obligations as well as rights. And often, all sides renege on some of their obligations. In the case of the US, they refused to make good on a number of their commitments, including lifting some of the sanctions and including providing North Korea with two light water reactors that were supposed to substitute from the access North Korea would no longer have to uranium for its nuclear power programs. Those were the kinds of deals that can work. They work for periods of time, one or another, or sometimes both sides undermine it and put them at risk. But the notion that it somehow didn’t work denies the fact that there were years in there when North Korea was not building new nuclear weapons. That was an important period that we need to go back to. We need to go back to diplomacy. This notion that we can somehow sanction our way into peace in the Korean Peninsula has been proved to not work. What does work is negotiations. What does work is diplomacy.
AARON MATÉ: To underscore those points, what definitively ended this deal was when Bush proclaimed North Korea as part of the Axis of Evil that you mentioned before. That definitely ended it for good. The irony here, if I remember correctly, the reason that Bush restarted talks with North Korea years after he declared that it was part of the Axis of Evil was after North Korea launched a nuclear test.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: When it became clear that we were going to have to negotiate, that you cannot have a military solution to a nuclear-armed state, to the emergence of a new nuclear weapon That is a recipe for annihilation. Of course now that Trump has called for the annihilation of the people of North Korea, the country of North Korea, as well as the president of North Korea, we are facing a very, very serious threat. There is no work within the United Nations going on right now to put pressure, for example, on South Korea and the United States to at least scale back if not stop all together these incredibly provocative military exercises that they go through year after year, that further militarizes the Korean Peninsula. If our goal is a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula we’re not going to get there by threatening North Korea.
AARON MATÉ: Phyllis, when this history is ignored, when this context is ignored, it’s a lot easier for leaders like Trump and Netanyahu to proclaim of the dangers of these countries and to stand up defiantly in the face of their supposed threats. We’ve established a bit of the missing context, but I want to talk about the rhetoric that they use and the PR strategy. North Korea, it’s easy to demonize them because they are under the control of a very strange and brutal dictatorship. With Iran, the rhetoric that’s deployed there, that’s what I want to ask you about: Netanyahu in his speech today, Trump in his speech today, both referred to Iran threatening the destruction of Israel. Is that being sort of a cornerstone of Iranian policy? But that too is either a misreading or an exaggeration of what Iran actually says when it comes to Israel, right?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well especially now, but there was a time when this was a very big issue because there had been a mistranslation of something that the former president, Ahmadinejad had said that was translated from the Persian as calling for the destruction of Israel. It actually said it was calling for the destruction of the Zionist regime in Israel, meaning an end to Zionism, which you could interpret in many different ways. It may well have been an anti semitic version, it may have not been. We don’t really know what the version was because we never got the full, correct translation. What were told was something that it didn’t say. It did not call for the annihilation of Israel or anything like that.
But there’s no question that Iran has rhetorically gone after Israel in many ways, as the Israel has gone after many Arab countries as well as Iran for years. More important has been what it’s done. In his speech today, Trump talked about Iran as supporting terrorists. He made one reference to Hezbollah, but he then sort of morphed into this discussion about Al-Qaeda when the reality is that Iran is one of the key forces fighting alongside the US against Al-Qaeda in Syria. In Iraq, it’s explicitly siding on the same side as the United States, on the side of the Iraqi government that is armed and paid and put in power,and kept in power by the United States, but has far tighter ties with Iran. In that situation as well, Iran is fighting against ISIS.
In Iraq, it’s fighting explicitly on the same side as the US. In Syria, it’s a little more complicated because it’s also fighting against the US opposed government of Syria; but it is like the US, fighting against ISIS in Syria. So this notion that somehow Iran is the major problem of terrorism in the region leaving out, just for instance, Saudi Arabia, which has been funding these organizations for many years. This is simple misstatement of not just history, but of contemporary reality.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, and even Hezbollah, which Trump mentioned as you say, they even just recently scored a major victory against the so-called Islamic State right on their own border, right on the Lebanon-Syria border.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Right. This was something that was attacked by Iraq, for instance, saying that Hezbollah and Lebanon, because the Lebanese government as a whole, Hezbollah is of course the strongest political party, elected political party in Lebanon. It was interesting that Trump today thanked Lebanon, along with Jordan and Turkey for hosting so many Syrian refugees. But the reality is Hezbollah’s origins are as an elected political party inside Lebanon and as an anti-occupation party in South Lebanon. It still is that while it’s also fighting inside Syria, allied with the Syrian government and Iran. But in that situation where you had ISIS fighters near the Lebanese border, inside Syria but near the Lebanese border, a deal was struck to stop the fighting, and the ISIS fighters were moved from that part of Syria across to a different part of Syria that was closer to the Iraqi side, the Iraqi border. It wasn’t inside Iraq. But the Iraqi government was outraged by it because they felt that it was somehow bringing ISIS fighters closer to them.
It’s a very complicated set of battlefields that we’re seeing in Syria and this is what is being reflected. But in Trump’s speech today, he simplified it all based on a lie, that Iran is the main problem of supporting terrorism and that’s when we can start talking about Al-Qaeda. He didn’t explicitly say Iran is funding Al-Qaeda, which of course is another lie, but he certainly implied it. We have this very complicated set of lies, ambiguities, things left out and denial of history, all in one speech, combined with this incredible extremism in using the language that he accused the North Korean leader of using, speaking openly of mass murder. Those were the words Trump used to attack the North Korean leader. He called it a regime. He said, “This is a reckless regime that speaks openly of mass murder,” when two sentences before, he was the leader of, one could argue, a rogue regime, which was now speaking openly of mass murder, calling for the total destruction of North Korea.
AARON MATÉ: Right. And this speaks to Iran, too. I mean, one other problem of the US is really discourse around Iran where so much is focus was put on Ahmadinejad’s words, whatever they were, is that we don’t talk about the fact that both Israel and the US, under both Democrats and Republicans in the US, have threatened Iran with bombing. The line constantly from Obama and Clinton was no option is off the table. John McCain joked about bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran. And then you have…Yeah, go ahead.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Bush came very close to bombing Iran. It’s a bipartisan, bicameral effort, intergovernmental, it’s the White House and Congress. So yeah, the threats against Iran are consistent and they are very real. The US and Israel both have been alleged to be involved in the cyberwar against Iran. This notion that this is someone benign countries just worried about this reckless government in Tehran, again, it leaves out the actual history of what the actual relationship has been based on, which has included that threat of war.
AARON MATÉ: Right. Phyllis, as we wrap, it’s only one speech, but it’s an important one. It’s Trump’s first address to the UN. What do you think the world takes away from his comments today?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think one can argue that he was speaking in language that makes his view of his own government that of a rogue state that is willing to speak openly of mass murder. Precisely what he accused the North Korean government of being. I think that other countries had to see that. When a threat like that is made by the leader of the only country in the world that has ever actually used nuclear weapons in war that has been responsible in Hiroshima and Nagasaki for thousands of deaths, in more recent wars, in far greater numbers, that is a very serious threat that has to be taken seriously. Not just dismissed as, “Well, this is somebody who uses language like that.” It’s not okay to use language like that. It is a violation of international law to use language like that.
I would hope that in some capitals around the world, governments are consulting on what might they do to stop this kind of reckless rise towards war, which is what this kind of language leads to when it’s spoken by the leader of the most powerful military power in the world.
AARON MATÉ: What might they do, Phyllis?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, there are many things they could do. The issue again is one of political will. They could bring charges in the International Court of Justice. They could ask for a resolution in the General Assembly where the US does not have a veto. They could ask the Security Council to take action against such reckless violation of the UN Charter that happened just in the other chamber of the United Nations. A country could individually use the concept of universal jurisdiction to say this is a violation of international law and we should issue an arrest warrant; and if this president ever comes within our jurisdiction, we will execute that warrant. There are many things they could do. The issue is not the lack of options. The issue is political will.
AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies. Phyllis, thank you so much.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.