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Politics

Trump-Kim standoff dominates annual UN meeting

Rohingya crisis and climate change also concern world leaders at 72nd General Assembly

North Korea Minister for Foreign Affairs Ri Yong Ho speaking during the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly.   © AP

UNITED NATIONS -- Tackling issues as far ranging as North Korea and climate change, Myanmar and multilateralism, world leaders took the podium at this year's U.N. General Assembly to, as always, urge action on a number of pressing global crises.

But with a world order thrown into disarray by the unpredictable leadership of real estate mogul, television personality and 45th president of the U.S., Donald J. Trump, and by North Korea's escalating nuclear and missile threats in a brutal first test for the global organization's new secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, the U.N.'s 72nd General Assembly will undoubtedly go down as an event to remember.

Rhetoric stirs fears of nuclear war

Perhaps no issue roused international attention like the confrontation between Trump and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un. Their clashing personalities fanned a long-standing war of words between countries that have been enemies since the 1950-53 Korean War. The standoff took a turn for the personal in what Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov likened to a "kindergarten fight between children."

U.S. President Donald Trump dialed up the rhetoric in his address to the assembly.   © AP

In his address to the assembly, Trump called Kim "Rocket Man on a suicide mission" and threatened to destroy the North if the U.S. is forced to defend itself or its allies. Kim, who was not present at the gathering in New York, responded with a statement from Pyongyang calling Trump a "mentally deranged U.S. dotard."

The name-calling only inflamed tensions more. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho warned the General Assembly Saturday that Trump's "Rocket Man" insult made the North's "rockets' visit to the entire U.S. mainland all the more inevitable." Trump responded by tweet, saying the North "won't be around for much longer" if it continues to repeat such positions.

Ri took tensions to a new level Monday when he cited Trump's tweet as "a declaration of war" and suggested that Pyongyang could therefore lawfully shoot down U.S. planes even outside its airspace. At the impromptu news conference outside his New York hotel, Ri echoed the American line by asserting that "all options will be on the operations table" for Kim.

Washington, which is technically at war with Pyongyang given the lack of a peace agreement for more than 60 years, has flatly denied such claims. "We've not declared war on North Korea. And frankly, the suggestion of that is absurd," White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a news briefing Monday. "It's never appropriate for a country to shoot down another country's aircraft when it's over international waters." North Korea, however, is likely to remain unmoved by Washington's clarification.

Neighboring China, Russia and South Korea all are urging dialogue to stave off military escalation. But South Korean President Moon Jae-in's olive branch speech to the U.N. -- in what seemed to be an attempt to counter Washington's aggressive approach with a bit of good cop-bad cop -- won no points from the North. Ri referred to South Korea and Japan as the U.S.'s "stooges."

Sectarian strife simmers over Myanmar's Rohingyas

Whereas the prominent crisis looming over the 2016 General Assembly session was undoubtedly the conflict in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis, this year's assembly was shadowed by the violence in Myanmar's western Rakhine state that has pushed hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh.

The long-standing persecution of Myanmar's Rohingya -- a Muslim minority group denied citizenship rights by the government -- escalated Aug. 25 when a militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked 30 police outposts.

Smoke rose from across Bangladesh's border with Myanmar on Sept. 14, nearly three weeks into a mass exodus of Rohingya fleeing violence in the Buddhist-majority nation.   © AP

The ensuing military response has been met with intense international backlash. Human rights activists have reported burnings of Rohingya villages, torture and other atrocities in what U.N. officials call a case of ethnic cleansing.

Guterres expressed shock at the "dramatic escalation of sectarian tensions" in his opening remarks to the assembly and called the situation in Rakhine "a vicious cycle of persecution, discrimination, radicalization and violent repression."

Bangladesh's prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, in her speech last week called on the international community to take "immediate and effective measures."

Many leaders from the Muslim world called for action on the crisis in their speeches to the assembly. A meeting on the sidelines of the assembly of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation drew many national leaders, including the presidents of Iran and Turkey and prime ministers of Bangladesh and Pakistan. The group issued a declaration that the situation had reached the level of ethnic cleansing and called on the Security Council to take immediate action.

Myanmar's U.N. ambassador, Hau Do Suan, flatly denied allegations of ethnic cleansing Monday, saying "nothing is further from the truth." The Myanmar government has refused entry to a U.N. fact-finding mission established by the Human Rights Council.

The Security Council is expected to discuss the situation in Myanmar at an open meeting Thursday afternoon following the request of seven countries, including permanent members the U.K., U.S. and France.

Multilateralism meets its match

In the aftermath of Brexit, the Trump election and a continuing wave of populist nationalism, the world's multilateral institutions have come under fire and the fate of international agreements put in doubt. U.N. member countries took their seats in the assembly hall this year anxious about the future of the organization.

Trump kicked off his presidency with a number of blows to the U.N., like slashing U.S. funding to aid programs and the peacekeeping budget, stoking concern that the organization's biggest financial contributor was abandoning it. Though a U.S.-led meeting on U.N. reform ahead of the general session was viewed by some diplomats as a sign of engagement, Trump's speech made clear that "America first," not multilateralism, would always be his priority.

The U.S., Trump said, would be a great friend to the world. "But we can no longer be taken advantage of, or enter into a one-sided deal where the United States gets nothing in return," he asserted. "As long as I hold this office, I will defend America's interests above all else." Trump also suggested other countries take a similar approach.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel aimed a direct hit at Trump's "America first" line in his address, suggesting that "we need more international cooperation and less national egoism, not the other way around."

"The motto 'our country first' not only leads to more national confrontations and less prosperity. In the end, there will only be losers," Gabriel told the assembly. Germany, often viewed as one of the last champions of European cooperation, also warned against abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump called "one of the worst and most one-sided transactions" and "an embarrassment" in his own speech.

"Existing treaties and agreements must not be called into question," Gabriel warned, calling it a matter of the credibility of the international community. Germany will work to ensure the agreement is implemented and upheld, he vowed.

From Paris with a plea

With the world reeling from a spate of natural disasters -- from hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in the Atlantic to the massive flooding in Bangladesh, India and Nepal -- climate change seemed to be an almost universal concern for the General Assembly.

Last year's assembly celebrated the achievements of the Paris meeting of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. But the tone this year took a drastic shift in response to Washington's decision to withdraw from the pact.

Frustration with the U.S. position was apparent in many statements of the week. Guterres called the science behind climate change "unassailable" and urged countries to "get off the path of suicidal emissions."

Leaders of island countries that risk inundation as sea levels rise and those that bore the worst of the latest superstorms were less subtle. Dominica's prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, made an impassioned speech, saying that to deny climate change is to "procrastinate while the earth sinks; it is to deny a truth we have just lived."

"It is to mock thousands of my compatriots who in a few hours, without a roof over their heads, will watch the night descend," he said, citing the damage of recent disasters.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has spearheaded the environmental push he inherited from his predecessor, was adamant that the agreement is non-negotiable. "To unravel it would be to destroy a pact that was made not only between states but also between generations," he said, according to an official translation of his speech to the assembly.

"It can be improved with new contributions, but we will not go back," Macron said, noting that he respected Washington's decision but that the door remained open for the U.S. to rejoin.

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