NEW YORK/SEOUL — North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, said on Monday President Donald Trump’s Twitter message warning that if they acted on their threats of missile attack the minister and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “won’t be around much longer” amounted to a declaration of war.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders on Monday denied the U.S. had declared war, calling the suggestion “absurd.”
Speaking earlier in New York, where he had been attending the annual U.N. General Assembly, Ri told reporters: “The whole world should clearly remember it was the U.S. who first declared war on our country.
“The question of who won’t be around much longer will be answered then,” Ri added.
On Saturday, U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers escorted by fighters flew in international airspace over waters east of North Korea in a show of force. Their flight pattern was the farthest north of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea that any U.S. fighter jet or bomber has flown in the 21st century.
“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 Col. Robert Manning said on Monday.
North Korea, which has remained technically at war with the United States since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce and not a peace treaty, has pursued its missile and nuclear programs in defiance of international sanctions. Trying to develop nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, the nation conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test this month.
Pyongyang accuses the U.S., which has 28,500 troops in South Korea, of planning to invade and regularly threatens to destroy it and its Asian allies.
The recent spike in rhetoric from both sides has fueled tensions and raised fears of miscalculation by one side or the other that could have massive repercussions. U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed that despite the war of words, the administration prefers a negotiated solution to the crisis.
Bruce Bennett, a defense expert at the Rand Corp think tank, said North Korea would have difficulties shooting down a U.S. bomber with missiles or fighter planes given its limited capabilities, and if it tried and failed, would appear weak.
“It is unlikely to take such a risk,” Bennett said. “So this sounds like another attempt by North Korea to ‘deter by bluster’ U.S. actions the regime does not like.”
Ri told the U.N. General Assembly on Saturday that targeting the U.S. 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 U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!”
China, North Korea’s neighbor and main ally, which has nevertheless backed U.N. sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, called for all sides to show restraint.
Ri warned on Friday that North Korea might test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean, in what would be North Korea’s first atmospheric nuclear test. Experts said such a move, while perhaps not imminent, would be proof of North Korea’s ability to successfully deliver a nuclear warhead on a missile.