The U.S. used bombers and fighter jets to stage a show of force off the North Korean coast on Saturday, two days after North Korea’s foreign minister threatened to conduct an atmospheric nuclear test somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. A small earthquake was also detected on Saturday in the same region where North Korea has previously conducted underground nuclear tests, though experts ultimately concluded that it was natural and not the result of a new explosion. Following these events, North Korea’s foreign minister suggested to the United Nations General Assembly that Trump’s recent rhetorical bluster has all but guaranteed a North Korean attack on the U.S. mainland.
The Pentagon said that Saturday’s bomber mission was meant to demonstrate the range of military options available to President Trump, adding that it was “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 its reckless behavior.”
During Trump’s first-ever address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, the president promised to “totally destroy” North Korea if the U.S. is forced to defend itself or its allies. Referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions, Trump then commented, “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.” Trump’s incendiary remarks were reportedly a last-minute addition to the speech against the advice of some of his aides. On Thursday, the president announced a new round of sanctions on the regime, while China signaled that it would enforce existing sanctions more vigorously.
North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong-ho initially responded to Trump’s U.N. speech by remarking to reporters that, “If he was thinking he could scare us with the sound of a dog barking, that’s really a dog dream.” On Thursday, Kim Jong-un himself delivered a rare televised statement in response to Trump’s remarks, in which he announced that he would “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire,” insisting that Trump will “pay dearly for his speech.”
Later that day, Foreign Minister Ri suggested that North Korea may conduct “the strongest hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean,” likely meaning an atmospheric test of a nuclear weapon — a legitimately terrifying possibility. Such a test, even if it were conducted successfully, would likely result in the release of an enormous amount of radioactive material, which could also mean major accompanying fallout. In the (very possible) event that the test were to go wrong and a hydrogen-bomb-tipped warhead exploded over a country like Japan — or even blew up on the launchpad in North Korea — the result could be catastrophic. No country has conducted a nuclear-weapons test in the atmosphere in more than 35 years, as every nuclear-armed country came to the conclusion that the tests were too dangerous.
On Friday, Trump responded to the new threats by commenting on Twitter that “Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before!”
None of this is normal, and that makes it more than a little little scary, as North Korea and nonproliferation experts told Vox’s Zack Beauchamp on Friday:
The highly unusual nature of the Kim statement, together with the highly specific nature of the atmospheric nuclear test threat, suggests that the country may really be gearing up to do something provocative. And experts say that as long as Trump insists on handling the North with angry rhetoric like his Friday morning tweet, rather than working to calm tensions, the situation is likely to keep escalating. It’s gotten to the point where the risk of actual war is, according to the Arms Control Association’s Kingston Reif, “unacceptably high.”
“The cycle of the threats and counter-threats has entered an even more dangerous phase,” Reif explains. “We have two volatile leaders with nuclear weapons making it personal and further digging in with their reckless rhetoric.”
And it got worse on Saturday. During a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Foreign Minister Ri fired back with more counter-ridicule and threats, calling Trump “a mentally deranged person full of megalomania and complacency” with his finger on “the nuclear button.” Ri also claimed that the president, in making his “Rocket Man” insult, “committed an irreversible mistake of making our rockets’ visit to the entire U.S. mainland inevitable all the more.”
“Trump might not have been aware what is uttered from his mouth, but we will make sure that he bears consequences far beyond his words, far beyond the scope of what he can handle, even if he is ready to do so,” Ri added, in a speech that took turns insulting and threatening Trump, while also making the case that North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program was justified, responsible, and intended as a deterrent to U.S. aggression.
“None other than Trump himself is on a suicide mission,” Ri insisted. It is a near certainty that the president will soon feel the need to respond, and possibly make the situation even worse, again.