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In UN speech, Trump to call for international cooperation on North Korea

President Donald Trump speaks during a session on reforming the United Nations at U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 18, 2017.
Lucas Jackson | Reuters
President Donald Trump speaks during a session on reforming the United Nations at U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 18, 2017.

NEW YORK CITY – President Trump has proved willing to buck traditional alliances in the name of his "America First" foreign policy. But when he addresses the United Nations on Tuesday, Trump will say international cooperation is necessary to thwart North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

In his first major speech to the 193-member U.N. General Assembly, Trump will speak in "extremely tough terms" about the North Korean nuclear threat, according to one aide, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity before the president's high-profile remarks.

Trump will emphasize the dangers Pyongyang's nuclear program poses not just to the U.S. – but to all the nations in the room, the aide said.

North Korea will be in the front row for Trump's speech, because the U.N. uses a lottery system to determine seating.

Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have been escalating throughout Trump's eight-month presidency. In August, Trump warned Pyongyang to stop threatening the U.S. – or else the U.S. would unleash "fire and fury like the world has never seen." Yet Trump's use of apocalyptic imagery failed to deter North Korea from conducting its sixth, and most powerful, nuclear test on September 3.

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In his speech, Trump is expected to call on U.N. members to block any economic assistance to Kim Jong Un's government. The goal is to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons program, or at least stop threatening the United States and its allies in Asia. While Trump and his aides said they want to resolve the dispute diplomatically, they have also suggested a military option could be on the table.

Trump will deliver his message in the cavernous General Assembly hall – think high-end opera house, quiet before the curtain rises. Trump will speak on a rostrum with a background of green marble.

Delegates from the 193-member United Nations do not applaud during speeches given by the U.S. president and other world leaders. That can be a disorientating experience for many politicians. Trump, who has continued to hold political rallies since his election, thrives especially when there's a palpable crowd reaction.

Even though the room will be quiet as the president speaks, it may be a tough crowd – especially for Trump, who has previously criticized the U.N.

On the presidential campaign trail last year, Trump said the body "is not a friend of democracy; it's not a friend to freedom." He's also described the U.N. as "a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time."

On Monday, Trump urged the international body to pay more for joint projects – such as peacekeeping missions – and complained the U.S. pays an outsized share of the costs. As he did on the campaign trail, Trump stressed that other countries need to step up their financial and military contributions to the U.N.

"To honor the people of our nations, we must ensure that no one and no member state shoulders a disproportionate share of the burden," he said.

He argued his point with a riff on his 2016 campaign slogan. "I think the main message is 'Make the United Nations Great' – not 'Again'," he said.

This message will be on full display in Tuesday's address.

The president is expected promote the idea that each country should respond to its own needs – and the needs of its citizens – above all others. They are calling this view "principled realism."

Trump, the aide said, is not interested in nation-building, or spreading democracy with the power of the U.S. military – but is interested in fostering global stability. "That's accomplished through countries that are more secure, countries that are more prosperous, and countries that are more sovereign," the aide said.

Some U.N. members have questioned Trump's "America First" approach during his time in office. Trump has announced a withdrawal from the landmark Paris climate agreement, an Obama-era pact to reduce greenhouse gases. He has also demanded negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, and abandoned the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership with Asian countries.

And at the first global summit of his presidency, a May meeting of NATO members in Brussels, Trump declined to specifically endorse the organization's mutual defense commitment, known as Article 5. Only after returning to Washington did Trump reaffirm the alliance's commitment to treat an attack on one ally as an attack on all.

Yet Trump's aides say the president will argue nations can find opportunities to work together on shared threats, in particular, those from North Korea.

Trump spoke by phone on Monday with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is not attending the U.N. General Assembly. The two leaders "agreed to maximize pressure on North Korea through vigorous enforcement of United Nations Security Council resolutions," the White House said in a statement.

The U.N. has hit North Korea with a series of sanctions. Trump has questioned the effectiveness of the most recent measures passed on Sept. 11, which did not include U.S. requests for an oil import ban and an international asset freeze on Kim Jong Un.

In his speech, Trump is also expected to discuss another nuclear challenge – from Iran.

Trump said on Monday he is close to making a decision about whether to abandon Obama-era deal with Iran. "You'll see very soon," he told reporters before meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, who views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat to his country, has said Tehran cannot be trusted to honor the agreement – and that the United States should either "fix" the deal or scrap it altogether. The deal requires Iran to give up the means to make nuclear weapons as the U.S. and allies reduce economic sanctions.

Trump, who has been critical of the deal his predecessor Barack Obama struck in 2015, also met Monday with a supporter of the Iran agreement, French President Emanuel Macron. Officials in France have said that killing the Iran deal could set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The other signatories of the deal include Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union, China, and Russia.

Though Trump's speech will be highly scrutinized, few speeches by U.S. presidents at the U.N. are memorable – with the possible exception of President George W. Bush's 2002 address, rattling the saber at Iraq six months before a U.S.-led invasion.

Leaders from other countries have delivered some of the most memorable U.N. speeches. Cuba communist leader Fidel Castro spent four-and-half hours in 1960 lambasting the United States. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, that same year, pounded his shoe in protest of a critical speech by a Filipino delegate. Venezuela dictator Hugo Chavez in 2006 compared Bush to the devil, and added that the stage "smells of sulfur still."