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North Korea says U.S. 'declared war,' warns it could shoot down U.S. bombers

U.S. bombers combine with South Korean and Japanese aircraft in a show of force over the Korean Peninsula on Sept. 17. Staff Sgt. Steven Schneider, Defense Department.

NEW YORK/SEOUL - North Korea's foreign minister said on Monday President Donald Trump had declared war on North Korea and that Pyongyang reserved the right to take countermeasures, including shooting down U.S. bombers even if they are not in its air space.

Ri Yong Ho said a Twitter message by Trump on Saturday in which the president warned that the minister and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "won't be around much longer" if they acted on their threats amounted to a declaration of war.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders on Monday denied the United States 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."

"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.

"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 after a heated exchange of rhetoric between Trump and Kim over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

"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 Colonel 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 been working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the U.S. mainland and conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test this month.

FEARS OF MISCALCULATION

Pyongyang accuses the United States, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea, of planning to invade and regularly threatens to destroy it and its Asian allies.

However, the recent spike in rhetoric has fueled tensions and raised fears of miscalculation that could have massive repercussions.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told a Washington forum it was vital Seoul and the United States handle the situation "with astuteness and steadfastness ... to prevent a further escalation of tension or any kind of accidental military clashes in the region which can quickly spiral out of control."

"There cannot be another outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula; the consequences would be devastating," she said.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the most senior serving U.S. official ever to visit Pyongyang, told the same forum it was "important to lower the temperature" of rhetoric.

"I'm kind of concerned about accidents of some kind that might happen," she said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Pentagon said the bomber flight indicated the range of military options available to Trump, but U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed that despite the war of words, the administration prefers a negotiated solution to the crisis.

Defense experts 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," said Bruce Bennett of the Rand Corp think tank. "So this sounds like another attempt by North Korea to 'deter by bluster' U.S. actions the regime does not like."

The latest round of heavy verbal salvoes began when Trump threatened in his maiden U.N. address last Tuesday to "totally destroy" North Korea, a country of 26 million people, if it threatened the United States or its allies.

In an unprecedented direct statement on Friday, Kim called Trump a "mentally deranged U.S. dotard" whom he would tame with fire.

Kim said North Korea would consider the "highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history" against the United States and that Trump's comments had confirmed Pyongyang's nuclear program was "the correct path."

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!"

On Monday, North Korea, which has pursued its missile and nuclear programs in defiance of international sanctions, said it "bitterly condemned the reckless remarks" of Trump.

CALLS FOR RESTRAINT

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday that the only solution to the crisis was a political one.

"Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

China, North Korea's neighbor and main ally, which has nevertheless backed U.N. sanctions over Pyongyang's nuclear program, called on Monday for all sides to show restraint.

"We want things to calm down. It's getting too dangerous and it's in nobody's interest," China's U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi told Reuters.

"We certainly hope that (the United States and North Korea) will see that there is no other way than negotiations to solve the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula ... The alternative is a disaster."

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang described the situation as highly complex and sensitive. He said it was vitally important that everyone strictly, fully and correctly implement all North Korea-related U.N. resolutions, which call for both tighter sanctions and efforts to resume dialog.

Speaking to British Prime Minister Theresa May by telephone, Chinese President Xi Jinping repeated Beijing's position that the issue should be resolved peacefully via talks and hoped Britain could play a constructive role, Chinese state media said.

Downing Street said the two leaders agreed there was a particular responsibility for China and Britain, as permanent Security Council members, to help find a diplomatic solution.

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.

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