President Trump took aim at the twin threats of North Korea and Iran on Tuesday at the United Nations, warning that the U.S. is prepared to “totally destroy” North Korea over its reckless nuclear weapons programs and calling on the world body to confront more forcefully Tehran’s support of Islamist terrorism.
In his first speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Mr. Trump challenged other nations to take a stand against “a small group of rogue regimes,” and he singled out North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as the most urgent danger.
“Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” Mr. Trump said, using the mocking nickname for Mr. Kim that he first deployed on Twitter. “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.”
To gasps from the assembled diplomats, Mr. Trump quickly added, “The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. It is time for all nations to work together to isolate the Kim regime until it ceases its hostile behavior.”
His address was the most highly anticipated speech to the United Nations in at least eight years, as world leaders looked for more clues to how Mr. Trump’s “America First” campaign promise will translate into foreign policy.
Mr. Trump, who criticized the United Nations last year as an ineffective and bloated club, gave an unapologetic defense of his doctrine, highlighted a U.S. military buildup and said other nations should defend their own sovereignty as the best path to security.
“As president, I will always put America first,” Mr. Trump said. “Just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.”
He declared, “We are renewing this founding principle of sovereignty. Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens — to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights and to defend their values.”
The president gave a forceful defense of Israel and criticized Iran’s “murderous” regime, prompting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to say that in his 30 years of experience at the United Nations, “I never heard a bolder or more courageous speech.”
Mr. Trump departed from his predecessor, Barack Obama, by calling out “radical Islamic terrorism.” He said some parts of the world are “going to hell.”
Uncontrolled migration, Mr. Trump said, burdens the receiving countries with costs “borne overwhelmingly by low-income citizens whose concerns are often ignored by both media and government.”
He called the brand of socialism governing Venezuela and Cuba a “discredited ideology.”
When the 41-minute speech was over, Mr. Trump told reporters he had delivered “a message of strength and of peace” that the United Nations needed to hear.
Former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton called it “the best speech of the Trump presidency.”
Senior Democrats in Congress were aghast.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California criticized Mr. Trump for using the annual U.N. speech “as a stage to threaten war.”
“Trump’s bombastic threat to destroy North Korea and his refusal to present any positive pathways forward on the many global challenges we face are severe disappointments,” she said. “He aims to unify the world through tactics of intimidation, but in reality he only further isolates the United States.”
Sen. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Mr. Trump “wasted the opportunity to emphasize strategic diplomacy” in favor of “escalatory rhetoric and bombastic threats.”
South Korean officials were more sanguine, saying Mr. Trump was mostly just repeating long-standing U.S. policy.
Park Soo-hyun, a spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, told Yonhap News Agency on Wednesday that Mr. Trump’s speech showed that Washington considers the issue a priority and “reaffirmed the need to put maximum sanctions and pressure against North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations” and encourage North Korea to denuclearize.
North Korea has posed the most significant national security test of Mr. Trump’s first eight months in office, launching multiple tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. resolutions, testing a hydrogen bomb and threatening to attack the U.S. territory of Guam in the South Pacific.
The Trump administration has lobbied China to put more pressure on North Korea and secured additional U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang, but none of those actions has changed North Korea’s behavior.
The president thanked China and Russia for supporting a Security Council resolution for more sanctions against North Korea but criticized them indirectly for propping up its economy.
“It is an outrage that some nations would not only trade with such a regime, but would arm, supply and financially support a country that imperils the world with nuclear conflict,” he said.
Mr. Trump said the United Nations may provide the best solution and that it’s time “for North Korea to realize that denuclearization is its only acceptable future.”
“That’s what the United Nations is for,” Mr. Trump said. “Let’s see how they do.”
North Korea’s U.N. delegation boycotted Mr. Trump’s speech, leaving behind one junior diplomat in the hall among several empty chairs.
On Iran, Mr. Trump reiterated that he is leaning toward withdrawing next month from the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which he called an “embarrassment to the United States.” To applause from the Israeli delegation, Mr. Trump added that “we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program.”
“It is far past time for the nations of the world to confront another reckless regime — one that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing death to America, destruction to Israel, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room,” Mr. Trump said.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told NBC that if the U.S. pulls out of the agreement, one option for Tehran would be “to go back to previous activities.” When pressed, he said he meant only peaceful nuclear programs.
“We will never go towards the production of nuclear weapons,” Mr. Rouhani said.
Mr. Trump criticized the Iranian government for using oil profits “to fund Hezbollah and other terrorists that kill innocent Muslims and attack their peaceful Arab and Israeli neighbors.”
“It is time for the entire world to join us in demanding that Iran’s government end its pursuit of death and destruction,” he said.
The president used his speech to try to highlight divisions between Iran’s leaders and its people.
“The entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change and, other than the vast military power of the United States, that Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most,” he said. “This is what causes the regime to restrict internet access, tear down satellite dishes, shoot unarmed student protesters, and imprison political reformers. The longest-suffering victims of Iran’s leaders are, in fact, its own people.”
The president began his speech by reminding the audience that the U.S. funds nearly one-fourth of the U.N. annual budget — about $1.2 billion per year.
“The United States bears an unfair cost burden, but, to be fair, if [the United Nations] could actually accomplish all of its stated goals, especially the goal of peace, this investment would easily be well worth it,” he said.
Later, at a U.N. luncheon, Mr. Trump said he is hopeful that the international body can be a more effective force for peace under the leadership of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“For years I’ve been a critic, but I’ve also been somebody that said that the United Nations has tremendous potential,” Mr. Trump said, raising a glass to offer a toast. “You are going to do things that will be epic, and I certainly hope you will. And let’s give this, as a toast, to the potential — the great, great potential of the United Nations.”
• S.A. Miller contributed to this report.