WASHINGTON — North Korea threatened Monday to shoot down US warplanes even if they are not in the country’s airspace, as its foreign minister stated that President Trump’s inflammatory comments about the country and its leadership were “a declaration of war.”
“The whole world should clearly remember it was the US who first declared war on our country,” the foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, told reporters as he was leaving the United Nations after a week of General Assembly meetings in New York.
“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,” he said.
Within hours, the Trump administration pushed back on Ri’s assertions, with the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, telling a news briefing in Washington: “We have not declared war on North Korea.”
The last time North Korea shot down a US warplane was in 1969, during the Nixon administration, killing all 31 crew members of a spy plane that was flying off its coast.
Today, North Korea’s ability to make good on its threat is limited. Its air force is outdated, undertrained, and frequently short of fuel. But the threat signaled another major escalation in a rhetorical exchange that many fear could push Pyongyang and Washington into a conflict, even an unintended one.
Ri’s reference to the declaration of war appeared to refer to Trump’s assertion in a Twitter message over the weekend that the North Korean leadership may not “be around much longer” if it continues its threats. Trump also repeated his derisive ‘‘Rocket Man’’ reference to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which he used in his speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 19.
Ri said that the question of “who would be around much longer will be answered” by North Korea.
It is possible that the foreign minister wanted to make it clear that North Korea, too, could threaten preemptive military action, just as the United States has repeatedly suggested in recent months.
But Trump’s tweet over the weekend appeared to go further, suggesting that mere threats, rather than a military attack, could drive him to wipe out the country. Whether that was one of his characteristic outbursts or a strategic effort to intimidate North Korea was not clear — even to some of his advisers.
The escalation of threats came two days after US warplanes flew close to the North’s coast, going farther north of the Demilitarized Zone — the dividing line between North and South — than any other US air mission in the past century.
The Air Force advertised the exercise, which involved only US aircraft, as a direct response to North Korea’s accelerated missile launches and a nuclear test two weeks ago.
Ri, who is well connected to the country’s top leadership, also said last week that the North was considering conducting an atmospheric nuclear test, which would be the first by any nation in 37 years.
It is unclear whether the North is capable of pulling off such a test, which is far more complicated and dangerous than the underground testing it has done six times in the past 11 years.
But a senior Trump administration official said over the weekend that the Pentagon and intelligence agencies were taking the threat seriously and beginning to devise possible responses — including preemptive military strikes — for the White House.
And Colonel Robert Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Monday that if North Korea did not stop its provocative actions, “we will make sure that we provide options to the president to deal with North Korea.”
The 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, so hostilities have merely been in abeyance since then. The North has often said that the United States was bringing the two countries “to the brink of war.”
But Ri’s remark about taking on US aircraft was new and raised the possibility of a clash, even if a North Korean attack failed. He also said that “all options will be on the operations table of the supreme leadership” of North Korea.
Political analysts said the Trump administration should consider Ri’s comments more than just verbal volleys.
“I think they’re dangerously close to some kind of a conflict with North Korea,” said Jae H. Ku, director of the US Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
“This is something I feared,” he said. “When we go down this road, our escalation could lead to accidental shootouts, and it may not be so accidental.”
The increasing acrimony also alarmed China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner, which strongly opposes the North’s missile and nuclear tests but has repeatedly urged deescalation.
“We want things to calm down,” China’s UN ambassador, Liu Jieyi, was quoted by Reuters as saying on Monday. “It’s getting too dangerous and it’s in nobody’s interest.”
North Korea had already deemed Trump’s threat at the United Nations — to “totally destroy” North Korea if the United States were forced to defend itself or its allies — a declaration of war.
Kim said last week: “Now that Trump has denied the existence of and insulted me and my country in front of the eyes of the world and made the most ferocious declaration of a war in history that he would destroy the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), we will consider with seriousness exercising of a corresponding, highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.”
In the April 1969 downing, North Korea attacked an unarmed United States Lockheed EC-121 spy plane on an intelligence-gathering mission over the Sea of Japan.
The 31 resulting deaths amounted to one of the biggest single losses of US military lives during the Cold War.
North Korean state radio said at the time that the aircraft had penetrated “deep into the airspace” of the country.
The Defense Department said the plane was 50 nautical miles off North Korea’s coast.
The North’s new assertions that the United States has declared war on the isolated country of 25 million people echo threats periodically made by state propaganda.
In August, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea’s ruling party, warned that American sanctions against Pyongyang would result in the United States’ being “catapulted into an unimaginable sea of fire.”
In March, North Korea released a propaganda video depicting a nuclear strike on Washington. With an animated mushroom cloud rising over the city, the English subtitle said, “If the American imperialists provoke us a bit, we will not hesitate to slap them with a preemptive nuclear strike.”