Trump calls North Korean leadership 'depraved' and threatening
By Anne Gearan
Jan 31, 2018 | 12:30 AM
The parents of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died days after he was released from a North Korean prison last year watched Tuesday as President Donald Trump called North Korea's leadership "depraved" and threatening.
"You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength inspires us all," Trump said, addressing parents Fred and Cindy Warmbier, who attended the State of the Union address with Otto's two siblings. "Tonight, we pledge to honor Otto's memory with American resolve."
Otto Warmbier was arrested when he visited North Korea as a tourist in 2016. His parents have said he was tortured in prison and was blind, deaf and comatose when North Korea granted a medical release last June. North Korea denied any wrongdoing.
The family put a dramatic personal face on the threat posed by North Korea, which has raced to build a nuclear weapon that could be delivered to U.S. shores as soon as this year.
Trump did not propose any new measures against North Korea on Tuesday, but touted his administration's resolve and its policy of "maximum pressure" on the regime.
"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," Trump said.
"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."
Trump was referring to rapid advances in North Korea's ballistic missile program over the last year that could now place much of the continental United States within range. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un engaged in an escalating volley of insults over the same period, with Trump mocking Kim as "Little Rocket Man" and Kim calling the U.S. leader irrational and doddering.
North Korea test-launched three intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2017, and claims that it has a deliverable nuclear weapon that can hit the mainland United States. The country also tested a nuclear weapon that U.S. officials assess was a hydrogen bomb.
Asked about the North Korean threat, CIA Director Mike Pompeo told the BBC on Monday that Pyongyang could "deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States in a matter of a handful of months."
Also in the audience Tuesday was a man who escaped North Korea and now lives in Seoul, and helps other defectors. Trump told the horrific story of Ji Seong-ho, which included starvation, maiming and the murder of Ji's father, saying "your great sacrifice is an inspiration to us all."
Ji stood when introduced and raised a pair of battered wooden crutches above his head in response to the sustained applause.
The Trump administration announced new sanctions on North Korea last week, continuing a strategy that has focused on squeezing the regime financially in hopes of drawing them to the bargaining table.
The U.S. military is confident it could destroy "most" of the infrastructure underpinning North Korea's nuclear missile program if necessary, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday.
Selva declined to specify the percentage of North Korean missiles U.S. forces could dismantle in the event of any military action, but his comments suggested the United States could attack both missile sites and support facilities.
The Trump administration has focused on North Korea as the most imminent threat, but its approach of "maximum pressure" on the regime has thus far failed to change Pyongyang's behavior or open a door to negotiations.
Trump at times has appeared to undercut Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's months-long effort to set terms for negotiations with North Korea, tweeting that talks are a "waste of time." Trump has also repeatedly said that past administrations bungled each time they engaged North Korea and failed to stop the country's nuclear development.
In recent weeks, however, Trump has suggested that talks could occur under the right circumstances and did not rule out direct discussions with Kim at some point.
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said in an interview Monday that the United States is waiting for a sustained hiatus in North Korea's missile and nuclear testing as a sign that it is serious about discussions.
"We need to see inaction from North Korea before we even consider sitting down with them," Haley said following a U.N. Security Council meeting with Trump at the White House.
South Korea has begun tentative talks with the North, a shift for both countries after several years with little contact. South Korea is also welcoming a delegation of North Korean athletes, officials and performers for next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Trump administration officials point to North Korea's willingness to undertake talks with South Korea and participate in the Olympics as proof that Trump's tough stance is bearing fruit.
Russia and China have cooperated to a point with the U.S. sanctions campaign at the United Nations, while advocating negotiations on terms the United States rejects. China, North Korea's most important ally and economic lifeline, wants a "freeze for freeze," that would halt U.S. military drills and joint exercises with South Korea in exchange for a halt on North Korea's tests.
Tillerson said earlier this month that Washington cannot agree to that approach because it falsely equates legitimate defensive military actions by the United States and its allies with unlawful actions by North Korea.
The White House's original choice for U.S. ambassador to South Korea is apparently out of the running after he privately expressed disagreement with the Trump administration's North Korea policy, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.
People familiar with the matter said Victor Cha raised his concerns with National Security Council officials over their consideration of a limited strike on the North aimed at sending a message without sparking a wider war - a risky concept known as a "bloody nose" strategy.
Cha went public with those concerns late Tuesday in an op-ed in the Post, which published after the news broke that his nomination was unlikely to happen.
"If we believe that Kim is undeterrable without such a strike, how can we also believe that a strike will deter him from responding in kind?," he wrote. "And if Kim is unpredictable, impulsive and bordering on irrational, how can we control the escalation ladder, which is premised on an adversary's rational understanding of signals and deterrence?"
Cha, an academic who served in the George W. Bush administration, also told NSC officials he objected to the administration's threats to tear up a bilateral trade deal with Seoul that Trump has called unfair to American companies. The administration last week imposed new tariffs on imports of washing machines and solar energy panels, a move criticized by the South Korean government.