If the United States attacks North Korea, it will respond with nuclear weapons.
That is the defiant message North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho delivered on Monday to a gathering of foreign ministers from the US, China, South Korea, Japan, and other Southeast Asian countries.
“Should the US pounce upon the DPRK with military force at last, the DPRK is ready to teach the US a severe lesson with its strategic nuclear force,” Ri said, using the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s formal name.
Don’t panic: There is no indication so far that the US is actually planning to attack North Korea any time soon. But military action against the North has been discussed, and the Trump administration continues to say that “all options are on the table.”
And North Korea’s threat of retaliation has frightening new resonance now that Pyongyang has successfully tested a missile that experts say is theoretically capable of hitting the US mainland, including cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington. And the US military now believes North Korea has the capability to “miniaturize” a nuclear weapon and fit it onto that missile.
So while questions remain about whether the North has the ability to hit targets with any precision or successfully deliver a real bomb across those vast distances, what’s undeniable is that the North has made staggering progress in advancing its nuclear capability.
And that’s especially troubling given the increasingly heated rhetoric coming from both Washington and Pyongyang. In a statement to reporters on Tuesday, Trump warned that North Korea “best not make any more threats to the US. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
And last week, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said President Donald Trump told him he is willing to go to war with North Korea to stop it from being able to hit the American mainland with a nuclear weapon.
“He’s not going to allow — President Trump — the ability of this madman [Kim Jong Un] to have a missile that could hit America,” Graham told the Today show’s Matt Lauer.
“If there’s going to be a war to stop him, it will be over there,” Graham continued. “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die over here — and he’s told me that to my face.”
With North Korea vowing to respond to a US attack with a nuclear strike — and now potentially having the ability to hit the US mainland — the stakes of this kind of belligerent rhetoric on both sides are getting a lot higher.
War isn’t necessarily imminent, or even inevitable — but we are running out of options
Over the weekend, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley helped push through a new round of sanctions against North Korea in the UN Security Council. The sanctions, which passed by a unanimous 15 to zero vote, are the harshest the UN has applied to North Korea yet and could end up costing the country about $1 billion in revenue.
The passing of these sanctions, which are ostensibly designed to push North Korea to the negotiating table, instead prompted it to lash out with this most recent belligerent statement from the foreign minister.
“We will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on [the] negotiating table,” Ri declared. “Neither shall we flinch even an inch from the road to bolstering up the nuclear forces chosen by ourselves, unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the U.S. against the DPRK are fundamentally eliminated.”
But while the North may not be willing to give up its nuclear weapons at this point, there are still things both sides could do to help reduce the tension.
For instance, as Ri alluded to elsewhere in his statement, the US and South Korea hold annual military exercises in the region that are “designed to increase readiness to defend South Korea, to protect the region, and to maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula,” according to Pentagon spokesperson Navy Capt. Jeff Davis.
North Korea, though, sees these annual exercises as provocative and overtly threatening and believes they are little more than practice runs for a future invasion of North Korea. It is this threat of US invasion that North Korea seeks to deter by building up its nuclear arsenal. It is possible that if the US were to halt these exercises, as well as other shows of military force that the US has escalated in recent weeks in response to the North’s missile tests, the North might calm down enough to consider talks.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has indicated the US is open to direct talks with North Korea, something the North has long pushed for. But, Tillerson said, it would have to at least pause its ballistic missile program for a time. “That would be the first and strongest signal,” Tillerson said at the same gathering. “We have not had extended periods of time where they were not taking some type of provocative action by launching ballistic missiles.”
For now, though, it seems that rhetorical escalation and belligerent chest-beating is winning out over calm.
Listen to the latest episode of Worldly, where we discuss the realities of our situation with North Korea, here: