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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
President Donald Trump’s recent comments about his lingering willingness to use military force against North Korea would be a “very dangerous challenge” to the DPRK if the remarks were deliberate and sincere, one of the country’s top officials said in a statement on Thursday.
The statement, from Choe Son Hui, the First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, is the second in two days from a senior North Korean official reacting directly to Trump’s words.
Choe appeared to be seeking a clarification about what, exactly, Trump meant when he said that the U.S. “will use” force against the North if necessary.
“It would be fortunate if President Trump’s statement of use of force and the metaphor was a spontaneous slip of the tongue, but the problem would be different if it was a deliberate provocation aimed at us,” Choe said, according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
“It would be a very dangerous challenge if it was a deliberate reappearance of expressions reminiscent of two years ago, when the war of words went back and forth across the ocean,” she added. “We will see if the expression about use of force and the metaphor appear again.”
Trump’s comments came on Tuesday, in London, ahead of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit.
“Now we have the most powerful military we have ever had and we are by far the most powerful country in the world, and hopefully we do not have to use it,” Trump said. “But if we do, we will use it.”
In his comments, Trump also revived his old “rocket man” nickname for Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader — likely the “metaphor” that Choe Son Hui criticizes in her statement.
“He sure loves sending rockets up, that’s why I call him rocket man,” Trump said. “We have a very good relationship and we’ll see what happens, it may work out, it may not.”
Choe described Trump’s words as “abusive language” — and, with the North Koreans’ own infamous nickname for the American President, warned that Pyongyang would respond in kind to whatever may come their way.
“If such expressions reappear and reaffirm that it was a calculated provocation towards us by the U.S., we will also begin to reciprocate against the United States with abusive language,” Choe said, according to KCNA.
“If he uses statements and expressions that intentionally amplify the atmosphere of confrontation at this time of crisis, we will have to diagnose that the dotard, again, started to be senile,” she said. “Our Chairman has yet to express anything towards President Trump.”
“Our Chairman” refers to Kim Jong Un.
Choe’s statement comes at a crucial moment for Washington and Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Un’s year-end deadline for a deal is now less than four weeks away, and the two countries have been unable to break out of a lingering diplomatic stalemate that has now lasted for two months, since American and North Korean negotiators held a rare face-to-face meeting, in Stockholm in early October, and left without any progress toward an agreement.
In a sign of this week’s growing tension, Choe’s statement also comes one day after a senior North Korean army official said it would be a “horrible thing” for the U.S. if the Americans decided to attack the DPRK.
That official, Pak Jong Chon, the chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), also noted that Kim Jong Un — the Supreme Commander of the KPA — was “displeased to hear” about Trump’s remark.
Pak’s statement appeared to be the first time the North Koreans had used an army official, instead of a diplomat, to speak out against the U.S. in recent months.
Hours after Pak made his statement, one of the Pentagon’s top officials for East Asia said that “the military option was never taken off the table” when it comes to dealing with North Korea.
“I mean, the military exists to serve as a deterrent,” said Heino Klinck, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. “It serves as a stabilizing force.”
One expert told NK News that Choe Son Hui and her military comrade’s statements over the last two days show that the DPRK is not taking Trump’s words lightly.
“The reappearance of Choe Son Hui after two months of silence, coupled with the North’s first military pronouncement yesterday since 2017, speak to just how seriously North Korea is taking Trump’s comment on possible use of military force and his Rocket Man metaphor,” said Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News’s sister site NK Pro.
“We will likely see more of this type of rhetoric from the North — it may even dive right into the anti-US rhetoric campaign Choe alluded to — depending on U.S. reaction,” she added.
According to Choe Son Hui, that anti-U.S. rhetoric — and any other actions that may be on their way — may be traced back to what Trump said on Tuesday.
“What displeases us is that the expression has lost politeness to the highest dignity of our republic and dared to use metaphors,” Choe said.
“As a result, our people’s hatred of the United States and Americans is rising even more… as reported, the Korean People’s Army immediately revealed its agitated stance,” she continued.
“Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, too, cannot restrain the displeasure in regards to President Trump’s remarks improperly expressed in the most sensitive period.”
Translation and additional reporting by Jeongmin Kim
Featured image: Artyom Korotayev/TASS/Alamy Live News