In his first State of the Union speech, President Donald Trump avoided the bellicose rhetoric he has wielded in recent months against North Korea but hit the communist state in a sensitive spot by targeting its human rights abuses.
He paid an emotional tribute to a North Korean defector who fled to the South, and the parents of an American university student who died of injuries suffered while detained in the isolated nation.
Analysts said the president was likely trying to avoid stoking tensions with the North ahead of its planned participation in the Olympics while maintaining a tough stance that has raised fears of a new conflict.
“North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland. We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from ever happening,” Trump said Tuesday evening.
“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation,” he added. “I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this very dangerous position.”
Trump then hailed the parents of Otto Warmbier, a university student who died of injuries suffered while in North Korean custody, and a North Korean defector he said had been tortured by the regime – all of whom were seated near the first lady in the visitor’s gallery of the House of Representatives.
“We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nuclear threat it could pose,” Trump said.
That followed a focus on the need to bolster America’s defense as Trump called for lawmakers to “end the dangerous defense sequester and fully fund our great military.” Trump campaigned on a promise to lift spending caps on the Defense Department. He also vowed to rebuild the country’s nuclear arsenal.
“Around the world we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy and our values,” he said. “In confronting these dangers we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict and unmatched power is the surest means of our defense.”
The speech, which marked the end of Trump’s first year in office, came as North and South Korea are engaging in a diplomatic thaw after months of crisis over the North’s nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang has demonstrated strong progress toward its goal of developing a nuclear weapon that could reach the U.S. mainland despite strengthened economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure against it.
The North agreed to participate in the Feb. 9-25 Olympics in the South Korean resort town of Pyeongchang after the first talks between the longtime enemies in more than two years.
Washington welcomed the moves but vowed to maintain its policy of isolating the regime.
Trump has consistently maintained that military action is on the table if diplomacy fails to rid the North of its nuclear weapons. He also has traded personal insults and threats with Pyongyang, warning he would unleash “fire and fury” and “totally destroy North Korea” if needed to defend the United States and its allies.
Duyeon Kim, a senior visiting fellow at the Seoul-based Korean Peninsula Future Forum, pointed to the president’s stress on strength and nuclear modernization in Tuesday’s speech.
“He was definitely being restrained,” she said. “The real message seems to be implied. It almost sounds like he’s laying the ground work to justify a potential future military action against North Korea if he feels he needs to use it.”
Kim Hyun-wook, an associate professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said Trump was probably trying to avoid upsetting the fragile détente between the two Koreas as all sides have pledged to make sure the Winter Games are peaceful.
“Still he made it clear the North Korean threat is very urgent and also the U.S. policy is continuing,” Kim said. “The fact that he was very much toned down in the State of the Union doesn’t mean that he is against military action in North Korea. The issue is what’s going to happen after the Olympics are done.”
North Korea, which is ruled by a third generation leader who activists say has intensified repressive measures to solidify his hold on power, is considered one of the world’s worst human rights abusers with more than 100,000 people believed to be enduring brutal treatment in political prison camps.
Trump cast a spotlight on the issue by telling the stories of the North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, and Fred and Cindy Warmbier.
Trump called Ji a “witness to the ominous nature” of the North Korean regime, saying he was a starving boy who was injured by a train after collapsing in exhaustion on the tracks, then later was tortured by North Korean authorities. He eventually escaped to the South.
“Seong-ho traveled thousands of miles on crutches all across China and Southeast Asia to freedom,” Trump said. “Most of his family followed. His father was caught trying to escape and was tortured to death.”
Ji responded by hoisting his wooden crutches into the air as he received a standing ovation.
More than 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the South, which automatically grants them citizenship, but they usually have to transit via other countries since the peninsula is divided by a heavily fortified border area.
Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was arrested in January 2016 during a tour in Pyongyang after he was accused of stealing a propaganda poster.
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