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 Its air force is outdated, undertrained and frequently short of fuel.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.
Mr. Ri’s reference to the declaration of war appeared to refer to Mr. 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.
Mr. Ri said that the question of “who would be around much longer will be answered” by North Korea.
It is possible that North Korea wanted to make clear that it, too, could threaten pre-emptive military action, just as the United States has repeatedly suggested in recent months.
But Mr. 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 American 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 American air mission in the past century. The Air Force advertised the exercise, which involved only American aircraft, as a direct response to North Korea’s accelerated missile launches and a nuclear test two weeks ago.
Mr. 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 pre-emptive military strikes — for the White House.
And Col. Robert Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on 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…