‘US has declared war,’ says North Korea

Facing off: Trump threatens “fire and fury”, North Korea says Trump is on a “suicide mission”.

War? Just how seriously should we take this? As a consequence, North Korea said yesterday, it had the “right” to shoot down US bombers. The White House dismissed the claim as “absurd”.

Two leaders, both favouring warlike rhetoric and refusing to back down from threats of a fight.

Since the day Donald Trump became president, North Korea experts predicted that the situation in North Korea would quickly escalate. And today it seems we are closer to war than ever.

North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, has accused the USA of declaring war. "The whole world should clearly remember it was the US who first declared war on our country," he told reporters as he was leaving New York, where he had addressed the UN General Assembly on Saturday.

His statement came in response to a tweet by Trump on Sunday that read: “Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at UN. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won't be around much longer!”

In that speech, Mr Ri had called Trump a "mentally deranged person full of megalomania" on a "suicide mission".

And in the wake of a recent patrol by American warplanes over the sea to the east of North Korea, the foreign minister said that Pyongyang has the right to shoot down future bombers, even if they do not enter North Korea airspace.

But what does declaring war really mean? After all, with North Korea the parameters for deciding what is or is not a war are somewhat blurry: the country is still technically in a conflict with South Korea, having signed an armistice, rather than a peace treaty, at the end of the Korean War.

The practice of declaring war has a long and varied history. In relation to the second world war, Neville Chamberlain’s famous Sunday radio address signalled Britain’s declaration of war, while President Roosevelt simply signed a document two years later to enter the conflict with Germany.

But to North Korea, almost anything can be classed as a declaration of war. Just last year, its leadership called South Korea pulling out of a jointly-run factory “an act of war”. The regime has applied the same label to US sanctions, as well as South Korea’s policy of a pre-emptive strike.

The world is used to North Korea’s overblown rhetoric, so should we really be worried?

War games

”Absolutely,” say some. The difference now is that North Korea is not facing a predictable US president. It is not in Trump’s nature to try to de-escalate tensions. He will continue his provocative “Little Rocket Man” jibes even when North Korea has missiles aimed at the USA’s own bombers. Time to start worrying.

“Calm down,” reply others. As Andrei Lankov writes in a book about North Korea, “bombastic statements are key to North Korea’s strategy” of gaining the world’s attention. He adds that the North “will never start a war it knows it cannot win”. And China would never allow it to take such a destabilising step.

You Decide

  1. How worried are you about a potential war with North Korea?
  2. Do you think Kim Jong-un is rational?


  1. Imagine you were advising Donald Trump. Compose a tweet, written in Trump style, aimed at calming tensions with North Korea.
  2. Look at two conflicts, one before the second world war, and one after it. Write 500 words comparing how they started, highlighting both the similarities and the differences.

Some People Say...

“For politicians, war is nothing but a game.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
North Korea's foreign minister has accused President Trump of declaring war on his country. The charge comes after a series of aggressive tweets sent by Trump, in which he promised that the leadership "would not be around for much longer". North Korea has threatened to shoot down any US bombers that even approach the country’s airspace. We know that North Korea has accused countries of declaring war several times in the past.
What do we not know?
Whether it is all just words, or whether finally this conflict will erupt. If war does start, we do not know how this would happen. It could be that Trump feels North Korea’s behaviour is sufficiently threatening to warrant a pre-emptive strike, or it could be that North Korea finally attacks South Korea.

Word Watch

Mentally deranged
This reflects an earlier broadside from Trump, stating that Kim Jong-un is “obviously a madman who doesn't mind starving or killing his people”.
A peace treaty is a formal arrangement to end war permanently. An armistice is just a temporary halt to armed conflict, usually, as the first step taken towards a peace treaty.
Korean War
The war started when North Korea, with help and permission from the Soviet Union and China, invaded South Korea. The South, backed by the USA, acting as principal force for the United Nations, won the war, after which Korea was split into two countries with separate governments. A key aspect to North Korean propaganda and historical revisionism is that the South started the war.
Jointly-run factory
The Kaesong Industrial Region was a symbol of the South Korean “sunshine policy” of the late 1990s, leading to 53,000 North Koreans working with their southern counterparts. It is currently closed, but the South Korean president has signalled his desire to re-open it.
The Real North Korea, Oxford University Press, 2013.


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