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North Korea threatens U.S. military aircraft, even if it’s not in its airspace

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Pyongyang's foreign minister says President Trump has effectively declared war on his country.

Tensions between North Korea and the United States continue to mount. On Monday, as he was leaving the United Nations General Assembly meetings, North Korea’s Foreign Minister asserted that his country has the right to shoot down U.S. military aircraft, even outside North Korea’s airspace.

“The whole world should clearly remember it was the U.S. who first declared war on our country,” the foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, told reporters as he was leaving his hotel in New York on Monday.

“Since the United States declared war on our country, we will have every right to make countermeasures, including the right to shoot down United States strategic bombers even when they are not inside the airspace border of our country,” Ri said. Speaking two days after U.S. warplanes flew close to North Korea’s coast, Ri added that “in light of the declaration of war by [President Donald J.], all options will be on the operations table of the supreme leadership” of North Korea.

The New York Times noted that North Korea has reserved the right to take pre-emptive action against the United States and South Korea and that the communist regime had already deemed Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea a declaration of war. During a speech at the United Nations last week, Trump made the threat do do so if the United States were forced to defend itself or its allies.

The Pentagon said on Saturday that the Air Force had sent B-1B bombers and F-15C fighters over waters north of the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas, in response to what the U.S. called the North Korean government’s “reckless behavior.” Pyongyang has been testing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles and is feared to be trying to perfect a method of delivering those weapons.

It was the farthest north “any U.S. fighter or bomber aircraft have flown off North Korea’s coast in the 21st century,” Dana W. White, the Defense Department’s chief spokeswoman, said in a statement.

The ongoing rhetoric has some observers concerned. “I think they’re dangerously close to some kind of a conflict with North Korea,” Jae H. Ku, the director of the U.S. Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, told the Times. “This is something I feared. When we go down this road, our escalation could lead to accidental shootouts, and it may not be so accidental.”

North Korea shooting down an American military aircraft is not without precedent, however. In April 1969, North Korean fighter jets shot down an unarmed United States Lockheed EC-121 spy plane on a North Korean intelligence-gathering mission over the Sea of Japan. Thirty-one American were killed. The U.S. and North Korea dispute whether the plane was over North Korean airspace.

In addition, Monday’s comments by Pyongyang’s foreign minister were not the first time North Korea has accused the U.S. of declaring war on it. In August, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea’s ruling party, warned that American sanctions against Pyongyang would result in the United States’ being “catapulted into an unimaginable sea of fire.”

Though hostilities between North Korea and South Korea, assisted by the United States. came to an end with an armistice in 1953, no peace treaty was ever signed. Some historians believe that means that the two are technically still at war.

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