In a fiery speech before world leaders at the U.N. on Saturday, North Korea’s foreign minister vowed the country will take “merciless pre-emptive action” if it detects U.S. or allied military action against it.
Just hours earlier, U.S. warplanes flew in international airspace to the farthest point north of the two Koreas’ border that any such American aircraft has gone this century.
In his highly anticipated speech before world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho derided U.S. President Donald Trump as “a mentally deranged person full of megalomania and complacency” with his finger on the “nuclear button.”
His speech came in the wake of Trump’s warning on Tuesday that the U.S. would “totally destroy” the isolated nation of 26 million people if Pyongyang threatened the United States and its allies.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom Trump mocked as a “rocket man . . . on a suicide mission,” responded with his own incendiary rhetoric, vowing to take the “highest-level” action against the United States — a statement Ri later hinted could mean a hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific.
“We will take preventive measures by merciless pre-emptive action in case the U.S. and its vassal forces show any sign of conducting a kind of ‘decapitating’ operation on our headquarters or military attack against our country,” Ri said, referring to strikes against the North Korean leadership.
“However, we do not have any intention at all to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the countries that do not join in the U.S. military actions against the DPRK,” he added, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Saturday’s early morning show of force by the United States saw B-1B heavy bombers from Guam and F-15C fighter escorts from Okinawa fly in international airspace over waters east of North Korea. It was the farthest point north of the Demilitarized Zone that any U.S. fighter or bomber aircraft has flown off North Korea’s coast this century.
Pentagon spokesman Dana White said the flight underscored “the seriousness with which we take the DPRK’s reckless behavior.”
“This mission is a demonstration of U.S. resolve and a clear message that the president has many military options to defeat any threat,” White said.
Trump followed the military muscle-flexing with an ominous but ambiguous threat Saturday night to Ri and Kim on Twitter.
“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!” Trump tweeted.
While the U.S. has said that “all options are on the table” — including military action — for dealing with the North Korean crisis, the White House has also maintained that diplomacy is the preferred route.
However, Trump’s hard-line stance and flyovers like Saturday’s, which the North calls a rehearsal for invasion, have done little to rein in the country’s ever-improving nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Lambasting Trump’s claim in his U.N. speech that North Korea’s nuclear and missile development represent a “global threat,” Ri called the assertion “tantamount to the notorious ‘big lie’ spread by the U.S. in 2003 about the existence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction in order to invade that country.”
Despite strict U.N. sanctions, and China’s announcement Saturday that it will limit energy supplies to the North and stop buying its textiles under new measures, the North has maintained that its nuclear and missile programs are crucial to the Kim regime’s survival and has ruled out denuclearizing on its own terms.
“Our national nuclear force is, to all intents and purposes, a war deterrent for putting an end to nuclear threat of the U.S. and for preventing its military invasion, and our ultimate goal is to establish the balance of power with the U.S.,” Ri said in his speech.
The country conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test — purportedly of a thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb — on Sept. 3 and has launched dozens of missiles this year as it moves closer to mastering the technology needed to reliably target the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile.
In July, it conducted two tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that experts say is capable of striking a large chunk of the U.S., and last week it lobbed an intermediate-range missile over northern Japan and into the Pacific Ocean for the second time.
“Through such a prolonged and arduous struggle, now we are finally only a few steps away from the final gate of completion of the state nuclear force,” Ri said. “It is only a forlorn hope to consider any chance that the DPRK would be shaken an inch or change its stance due to the harsher sanctions by the hostile forces.”
Ri said that under the North’s bolstered “war deterrent . . . the United States and its followers must now think twice before launching military provocation against the DPRK.”
The North’s top diplomat also continued the war of words with Trump, claiming the U.S. leader had turned the White House “into a noisy marketing place” and has now tried to turn the U.N. “into a gangsters’ nest where money is respected and bloodshed is the order of the day.”
In an even more personal attack on the U.S. president, Ri blasted Trump as a “gambler who grew old using threats, frauds and all other schemes to acquire a patch of land” and — referring to his record-low approval ratings — claimed he is even ridiculed by the American people as “Commander in Grief,” “Lyin’ King” and “President Evil.”
“Due to his lacking of basic common knowledge and proper sentiment, he tried to insult the supreme dignity of my country by referring it to a rocket,” Ri said in reference to Kim, who is revered by many in the North. “By doing so, however, he committed an irreversible mistake of making our rockets’ visit to the entire U.S. mainland inevitable all the more.
“None other than Trump himself is on a suicide mission,” Ri added.
Experts said the ongoing harsh rhetoric was akin to pouring fuel onto a blazing fire.
“Trump continues to back the regime of Kim Jong Un into a corner through his threats and personal attacks, said J. Berkshire Miller, a senior visiting fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo.
Trump’s public ridicule of diplomatic options to resolve tensions further hurts any attempt at a comprehensive approach to mitigating threats from Pyongyang, according to Miller.
“The concern now is that Kim is diligently working toward a long-held goal of North Korea — and China also — to ‘decouple’ the U.S. with its allies, Japan and South Korea,” Miller said.
North Korea has long sought to drive a wedge between the United States, South Korea and Japan in a bid to rid the peninsula and the region of U.S. troops and ultimately unify the two Koreas.
The United States and South Korea are technically still at war with North Korea because the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce and not a peace treaty.
Pyongyang accuses Washington — which has 28,500 troops in South Korea and 47,000 service members in Japan — of planning to invade, and regularly threatens to destroy it and its Asian allies.
While the prospect of nuclear war remains a far-off risk, the odds of conflict have increased amid Trump’s volatility and the U.S. military’s continued shows of force.
“Conflict remains a real possibility and the chance of miscalculation remains potent as the U.S. continues to provide all stick and no carrot,” Miller added.