NORTH KOREA’s foreign minister has said US President Donald Trump had declared war on his country and warned Pyongyang could shoot down American bombers, even those not within its airspace.
Ri Yong Ho said a tweet by Trump on Saturday, in which the president warned the minister and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “won’t be around much longer” if they acted on their threats, amounted to a declaration of war.
White House spokesman Sarah Sanders on Monday denied the US had declared war, calling the suggestion “absurd”.
Speaking earlier in New York, where he had been attending the annual UN General Assembly, Ri told reporters:
“The whole world should clearly remember it was the US who first declared war on our country.”
“Since the United States declared war on our country, we will have every right to make countermeasures, including the right to shoot down United States strategic bombers even when they are not inside the airspace border of our country.”
“The question of who won’t be around much longer will be answered then,” Ri said.
On Saturday, US Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers escorted by fighters flew east of North Korea in a show of force after a heated exchange of rhetoric between Trump and Kim over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme.
“That operation was conducted in international airspace, over international waters, so we have the right to fly, sail and operate where legally permissible around the globe,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Robert Manning said on Monday.
North Korea, which has remained technically at war with the US since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce and not a peace treaty, has been working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the US mainland and conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test this month.
Pyongyang, which has pursued its missile and nuclear programmes in defiance of international sanctions, accuses the US of planning to invade and regularly threatens to destroy it and its Asian allies.
However, recent rhetoric from both sides has been unusually harsh, raising fears of miscalculation that could have massive repercussions, even though US officials have repeatedly stressed the administration prefers a negotiated solution.
The latest round of heavy verbal salvoes began when Trump threatened in his maiden UN address last Tuesday to “totally destroy” North Korea, a country of 26 million people, if it threatened the US or its allies.
In an unprecedented direct statement on Friday, Kim called Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard” he would tame with fire.
Kim said North Korea would consider the “highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history” against the United States and that Trump’s comments had confirmed Pyongyang’s nuclear programme was “the correct path”.
Ri told the UN General Assembly on Saturday targeting the US mainland with its rockets was inevitable after “Mr Evil President” Trump called Kim a “rocket man” on a suicide mission.
On Twitter late Saturday, Trump replied: “Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at UN If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!”
Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won't be around much longer!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
On Monday, White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster defended Trump’s rhetoric, saying he agreed with the US president that the risk was that Kim Jong Un might fail to realise the danger he and his country were facing.
McMaster voiced confidence that the US could, for example, impose a military blockade if it chose, perhaps even as a part of a multinational effort. But he acknowledged risks of escalation with any US military option.
“We don’t think there’s an easy military solution to this problem. There’s not a precision strike that solves the problem. There’s not a military blockade that can solve the problem,” he said, adding that ultimately it would come down to an international effort.
Still, McMaster told a conference hosted by the Institute for the Study of War, Washington was concerned a nuclear-armed North Korea capable of hitting the US was likely to engage in “nuclear blackmail,” for instance to try to achieve its goal of getting US troops off the Korean peninsula.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said it was vital Seoul and the US handle the situation “with astuteness and steadfastness … to prevent a further escalation of tension or any kind of accidental military clashes in the region which can quickly spiral out of control.”
“There cannot be another outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula; the consequences would be devastating,” she told Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Additional reporting by Reuters