Did Trump's Threat To Destroy North Korea Echo A Threat Made By Obama?

Here's the full story.

In the wake of President Donald Trump's controversial Tuesday address to the United Nations, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders made some waves on Twitter.

Apparently defending President Trump's threat to "destroy" North Korea if America is forced to defend itself, Sanders quoted former president Obama in a tweet on Tuesday morning. 

"Presidents have always been clear to deter threats," she wrote. "'We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals' — @BarackObama last year."

A Plus fact-checked the quote, and it's accurate. Obama's words on North Korea came during a 2016 CBS interview with Charlie Rose. That alone might help some Americans sleep at night, knowing that Trump's rhetoric is similar when compared to the rhetoric of previous presidents.

Obama did make it clear that America could destroy North Korea, a messaging tactic American leaders have long employed as a deterrent. Still, the 140-character limit on Twitter has been known to limit context. Obama's full remarks were as follows.

"It's not something that lends itself to an easy solution," Obama told Rose. "We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals. But aside from the humanitarian costs of that, they are right next door to our vital ally, Republic of Korea. One of the things that we have been doing is spending a lot more time positioning our missile defense systems, so that even as we try to resolve the underlying problem of nuclear development inside of North Korea, we're also setting up a shield that can at least block the relatively low-level threats that they're posing right now."

Those comments stand in stark contrast to President Trump's words on Tuesday.

Trump confers with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan at a United Nations luncheon.

"The United States has great strength and patience," Trump said. "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."

While both Trump and Obama's comments echoed the American policy of leaving the threat of military action on the table, the rest of their statements send notably different messages. Obama, for his part, said that "we could" destroy North Korea — while Trump suggested that "we will," although he added that he hopes it "will not be necessary." Obama also noted that taking serious action like a strike would have "humanitarian costs" (25 million people live in North Korea) and would threaten South Korea, an ally in the region. Trump, on the other hand, describes those humanitarian costs as "a suicide mission" for Kim Jong Un and his regime. 

It is also true that the situation has changed since Obama's remarks in 2016. Experts say that North Korea's most aggressive posture has come in the last few months, forcing American officials to consider pre-emptive action. Intelligence reports indicate North Korea has successfully tested several nuclear weapons and missiles that reach further than those it publicly experimented with when Obama was president.

Still, unlike Trump, Obama's comments offered an alternative to a military strike. He noted that the United States will continue to try to "resolve the underlying problem of nuclear development" while building up a missile defense system that could shield America and allies from whatever the current threat is. Trump implored the United Nations to work to stop North Korea, saying that "it is time for North Korea to realize that the denuclearization is its only acceptable future." If not, he promised that America was "ready, willing and able."

On the whole, many of Trump's opponents saw his speech at the U.N. as deeply divisive and with little practical solutions offered. His supporters, on the other hand, saw the America First firebrand leader they voted for, one not unwilling to criticize the people he was sitting in front of. 

At the end of the day, Americans may sleep better noting that Obama and Trump's choices in language weren't so dissimilar. But it's also worth noting that previous presidents — Obama included — have also sought stability in the region via consistent messaging intended to de-escalate as well as deter.

Cover image via Shutterstock.


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