About the Author
View more articles by Jacob Fromer
Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
If Washington were to use its armed forces against North Korea, it would be a “horrible thing” for the U.S., a senior DPRK army official warned on Wednesday in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
The comments, from Pak Jong Chon, the chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), appeared to be a response to remarks made one day earlier by President Donald Trump that he would still be willing — despite a “really good” relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — to use military force against the North if necessary.
“Recently the U.S. president said that he may use armed forces in clear reference to the DPRK, even though he attached preconditions,” Pak said, according to KCNA. “This greatly disappointed me.”
“Such elated spirit and bluffing may greatly get on the nerve of the dialogue partner even at the slightest slip,” he said.
“One thing I would like to make clear is that the use of armed forces is not the privilege of the U.S. only.”
Pak’s comments — like Trump’s — also included a reference to the unusually strong relationship between the two heads of state in Washington and Pyongyang, but warned that their bond may not be enough to prevent the ongoing tension from growing even worse.
“I think the only guarantee that deters physical conflict from flaring up in relations between the DPRK and the U.S. despite such a dangerous military stand-off is the close relations between the top leaders of the DPRK and the U.S.,” Pak said, according to KCNA.
But, he also said that Kim Jong Un — the Supreme Commander of the KPA — was “displeased to hear” Trump’s remarks.
Pak also made a vague reference to recent U.S. military activity and said that the North is preparing to “cope” with it.
“The DPRK and the U.S. are still technically at war and the state of truce can turn into an all-out armed conflict any moment even by any accidental case,” Pak said, according to KCNA.
“Recently the armed forces of the U.S. have shown unusual military moves targeting the DPRK, and we are analyzing the effects those military actions can have on the security of the DPRK and are getting ourselves ready to cope with them.”
It is unclear which military activity Pak is referencing, but this week, the U.S. has flown multiple surveillance aircraft over the Korean peninsula, according to South Korean media reports.
Last month, the U.S. canceled an annual military drill with South Korea, apparently as a gesture of goodwill.
According to one expert, Pak’s appearance in KCNA may signal a turning point in Pyongyang’s tactics after a weeks’ long, increasingly tense diplomatic stalemate with Washington.
The change: a switch in focus from North Korea’s diplomats to its army.
“I think this may be the beginning of the KPA’s resurgence, such as more KPA pronouncements,” said Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News’s sister site NK Pro.
“First, unlike previous ‘press statements’ attributed to current or former foreign policy-related officials, this is attributed to a military official,” she said. “Foreign ministry advisor Kim Kye Gwan typically has reacted to Trump’s comments on North Korea and Kim Jong Un.”
Late last month, after President Trump appeared to suggest a meeting with North Korean leader — “See you soon!” he wrote on Twitter — Kim Kye Gwan delivered a stern reply the next day: “We are no longer interested in such useless meetings.”
Wednesday’s statement, analyst Lee said, is “the first North Korean pronouncement explicitly attributed to a KPA entity since 2017.”
“This seems to be one more indicator of North Korea’s shift to the military, something we already got a glimpse of in today’s report on Kim Jong Un’s Mt. Paektu visit, where he was primarily accompanied by KPA officials,” she said.
According to DPRK propaganda on Wednesday, Pak rode a horse at the politically symbolic North Korean mountain only a few positions behind Kim Jong Un — a likely sign of his clout in Pyongyang.
The switch to a military focus may also emphasize a larger point about the state of U.S.-DPRK relations: with four weeks remaining until the end of the year (and Kim Jong Un’s deadline for a deal), the relationship once again seems to have gotten colder.
Naoko Aoki, an adjunct political scientist at the RAND Corporation, told NK News that Wednesday’s statement from the senior North Korean military official “underscores the position North Korea has been taking in terms of its dealings with the United States.”
“On the one hand, this is typical North Korean behavior,” she said. “North Korea tends to react swiftly and negatively to U.S. actions and comments that it finds offensive.”
However, she added, the DPRK “has been saying that it wants U.S. concessions by the year-end deadline that it has set for diplomacy,” and has also been signaling that “tensions will rise again if it does not get what it wants.”
“The North Korean logic is that it has accepted some constraints and that the U.S. must now take steps that benefit North Korea,” Aoki said. “This is yet another step it is taking to underscore that point.”
Whatever the plan of the moment, at least one constant appears to be true: whatever Trump says, Pyongyang hears.
“Evidently, the North Koreans found the president’s comments at the NATO summit to be a sufficient departure from his months of willingness to pretend as if all was well,” Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, told NK News.
“We’re seeing the ingredients for a 2017-style crisis quickly falling into place.”
Additional reporting by Jeongmin Kim
Featured image: NK News