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View more articles by Hamish Macdonald
Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.
North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho claimed in New York on Monday that U.S. President Donald Trump had declared war on his country and that the DPRK now has the right to respond by shooting down U.S. aircraft outside of its territory.
This declaration of war – Ri claimed – came in the form of a tweet by Trump on September 24.
“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’s post on Twitter last week read.
The North Korean leadership was, predictably, unimpressed.
“Last weekend Trump claimed that our leadership would (not) be around much longer and… he declared war on our country,” Ri said, speaking through a translator.
“Even the fact that this comes from someone who is currently holding the seat of the United States presidency, this is clearly a declaration of war,” he added.
Despite the very public statement, Ri’s comments are far from the first time the DPRK has claimed that declarations of war have been made against it.
The phrase “declaration of war” appears in Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) English language articles over 200 times since 1997 – a search of NK Pro’s KCNA Watch database shows – and many of those entries echo Ri’s press conference.
In fact, Ri’s comments aren’t even the first time that North Korea has claimed Trump himself has declared war on the country.
On September 22 and 23, six articles were published by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in response to Trump’s UN General Assembly (UNGA) speech on September 19, during which he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea.
The sentence “declaration of war” appears in Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) English language articles over 200 times since 1997
“The United States has great strength and patience but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” Trump said during his UNGA address.
The six KCNA articles carried statements from the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country of the DPRK (CPRC), the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (CC, WPK), various military officials and citizens, all of whom claimed the speech represented a declaration of war.
“Trump’s rubbish is the open declaration of war against our supreme dignity, state, social system and people, and an unpardonable extra-large provocation,” the CPRC statement said, according to KCNA.
So aside from Trump’s recent comments, what constitutes a declaration of war in the eyes of the North Korean state?
THE COUNTRY THAT CRIED WAR
In April, KCNA published a memorandum by the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) that provided a recap of what, it claimed, were declarations of war against North Korea.
A review of the memorandum reveals a broad set of criteria. For one, policies from North Korea’s opponents have been cited as a declaration of war.
In 2003, for instance, the MFA considered President George Bush to have openly declared “nuclear war” against North Korea “by putting it as a target of preemptive nuclear strike,” according to the memorandum.
Accusations against the DPRK also qualified. Again in 2003, KCNA said that U.S. claims that North Korea was engaged in “drug smuggling, counterfeiting of money, suppression of religion, human traffic (sic) and training of computer hackers” as well increased pressure on aviation and merchant vessel activity, qualified as a declaration of war “no matter how hard they may try to cover up them.”
The adoption of sanctions against the country have also inspired this response from North Korean state media and in 2006, the year of North Korea’s first nuclear test, it claimed that the adoption of UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions against the country was a “de facto ‘declaration of war’.”
“The UNSC ‘resolution,’ needless to say, cannot be construed otherwise than a declaration of a war against the DPRK,” the MFA said, following the adoption of Resolution 1718.
The same claim has been made repeatedly following the adoption of subsequent UNSC resolutions as well as after the U.S.’s imposition of unilateral sanctions. Further UN action against North Korea has also inspired similar responses.
In November 2014, a UNGA committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of a draft resolution recommending that North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court.
“The UNSC ‘resolution,’ needless to say, cannot be construed otherwise than a declaration of a war against the DPRK”
North Korea’s National Defence Commission (NDC) responded with the following statement: “The brigandish ‘resolution’ against the DPRK’s genuine human rights means the most undisguised war declaration to infringe upon its sovereignty,” the November 23 NDC statement read.
The joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, which are consistently condemned by North Korea, also fit the bill for such claims as can be seen in a KCNA article in March.
“Key Resolve and Foal Eagle joint military maneuvers of the U.S. and south Korean puppet warmongers are an open declaration of war against the DPRK as they reveal their sinister scenario to launch a nuclear war against it,” the March 15 article read.
South Korea has also been singled out for its closing of the formerly joint-run Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) last year.
“The recent provocative measure is a declaration of an end to the last lifeline of the north-south relations, total denial of the June 15 North-South Joint Declaration and a dangerous declaration of a war,” a KCNA article from February 2016 said of the decision.
It is not exclusively the actions of nation states that inspire such claims.
In an effort to spread information within North Korea and inspire dissent within the country, activists in South Korea – many of whom are defectors – launch balloons that carry leaflets across the border and into the DPRK.
North Korea has reacted angrily to such launches and communicated via state media that it considers the practice yet another declaration of war.
In 2015, North Korea’s military “described the massive spread of the leaflets and electronic media across the whole military demarcation line as a blatant provocative act of declaring war,” a Pyongyang Times article read.
While the launches were conducted by non-governmental groups, North Korea decided that they were “aided and abetted by the south Korean authorities.”
The threat to send copies of the 2014 film, “The Interview,” was also considered by the Korean People’s Army (KPA) to be a grave “politically-motivated provocation.”
North Korea considers personal criticisms of its leadership as a severe crime and the plans to send copies of the film, which is less than flattering to Kim Jong Un, as a “de facto declaration of war.”
According to North Korean propaganda, Trump isn’t even the only U.S. citizen to declare war against the DPRK this year.
Sitting U.S. Senators Ted Cruz and John McCain also were alleged to have done so after criticising Kim in March, with McCain labeling the North Korean leader as “fat” and “crazy”.
“Such guys as John McCain and Ted Cruz made a provocation tantamount to declaration of war against the DPRK, the DPRK will take steps to counter it,” the foreign ministry was reported to have said by the Pyongyang Times.
It is not exclusively the actions of nation states that inspire such claims
SAME OLD STORY OR CAUSE FOR CONCERN?
The White House has responded to the most recent statement by Ri – calling it “absurd” – a review of state media shows these claims have been repeatedly made in the past.
But it also represents an escalation in the heated back and forth exchange of threats and insults that have emerged between Trump and North Korea in recent weeks.
“I think the declarations of war are a problem because they denote a bona fide crisis; that’s always what they’ve meant in the past,” Dr. Van Jackson, Defence & Strategy Fellow at Centre for Strategic Studies, told NK News on Monday.
“Crisis situations matter because we know that they are antecedents to conflict, and because the compressed decision-making that crises necessitate are prone to error or miscalculation,” he added.
Such miscalculations can result in dire consequences, as many have warned, and Ri’s insistence that North Korea now has the right to shoot down U.S. strategic bombers outside of its territorial boundaries may provide further fuel to the fire.
The comment was likely in response to the U.S. Air Force mission on Saturday, which saw multiple B-1B Lancer bombers and F-15C Eagle fighters fly over international waters off North Korea’s east coast.
“This is the farthest north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) any U.S. fighter or bomber aircraft have flown off North Korea’s coast in the 21st century, underscoring the seriousness with which we take DPRK’s reckless behavior,” a statement issued by a Pentagon spokesperson read.
“In a statistical sense, war is by definition a low probability event, so it’s not something we can predict. But we know what the warning signs of war are, and we know the pathways or processes through which even defensive actions can lead to war, so that’s what we have to watch out for,” Jackson said.
“My concern comes from a seeming lack of understanding in the Trump administration about how its words and deeds can cause war.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: NK Pro