The Cable

North Korea Threatens to Shoot Down U.S. Bombers

An escalating war of words between Trump and Kim raises specter of accidental confrontation.

A US Air Force B-1 Lancer bomber flies above the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on October 18, 2014 as seen from the Turkish border town of Suruc. Turkey is turning a deaf ear to insistent pressure to take a more pro-active stance in the fight against Islamic State (IS) jihadists, adding to existing strains with the West under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  Western diplomats have repeatedly made clear they want to see the key NATO member play a key role in the coalition against the militants, who are battling for the Syrian town Kobane just a few kilometers from Turkey. AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS        (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A US Air Force B-1 Lancer bomber flies above the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on October 18, 2014 as seen from the Turkish border town of Suruc. Turkey is turning a deaf ear to insistent pressure to take a more pro-active stance in the fight against Islamic State (IS) jihadists, adding to existing strains with the West under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Western diplomats have repeatedly made clear they want to see the key NATO member play a key role in the coalition against the militants, who are battling for the Syrian town Kobane just a few kilometers from Turkey. AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Proclaiming that the United States has effectively declared war on North Korea, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said on Monday in New York that Pyongyang has the right to shoot down U.S. military aircraft, even if they don’t cross into the isolated nation’s airspace.

“The whole world should clearly remember it was the U.S. who first declared war on our country,” Ri said. “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.”

His statement added to the war of words between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and is the most specific threat yet in the most recent flare up in tensions, which has included North Korean nuclear tests and fly-bys by American bombers. On Saturday, U.S. jets flew up the east coast of North Korea to show Pyongyang the United States has military options.

The White House flatly denied Monday that the president had declared war on Pyongyang, but national security advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, speaking at a conference in Washington, said “what we hope to do is to avoid war with them but we cannot discount that possibility.”

Without going into detail about potential military plans for dealing with North Korea’s growing ballistic missile capability or nuclear program, McMaster cautioned that “there’s not a precision strike that solves the problem.”

 

During an unprecedented television speech last week, Kim said that Trump had made a “ferocious declaration of war,” at the United Nations. Trump had threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if Kim attacked the United States or its allies. He also started referring to Kim as “little Rocket Man” and in a weekend tweet, warned North Korea “won’t be around much longer!”

McMaster defended president Trump’s comments, saying they made clear how the U.S. would respond to any North Korean aggression toward the United States or its allies. “I don’t think there’s any lack of clarity now,” he said.

Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis confirmed that the Pentagon had drawn up war plans for dealing with North Korea if the need arose, and McMaster confirmed that the Trump administration has worked up “four to five” scenarios in which the North Korea nuclear issue is resolved. “Some are uglier than others,” he said.

American bombers and fighter planes regularly fly close to North Korean airspace and perform overflights of South Korea in shows of force meant to show off American commitment to defending Seoul.

And the flights, along with regularly scheduled U.S. and South Korean joint war games, result in predictably warlike statements from Pyongyang promising strikes on the participating forces.

On Saturday however, the Pentagon upped the ante by sending B-1B bombers and F-15 fighter planes further up the east coast of North Korea than at any point this century, “underscoring the seriousness with which we take DPRK’s reckless behavior,” Dana W. White, chief Pentagon spokesperson said in a statement. The flights, which took place in international airspace, were “a clear message that the President has many military options to defeat any threat…We are prepared to use the full range of military capabilities to defend the U.S. homeland and our allies,” White said.

But experts doubt North Korea’s ability to match its bluster and actually knock a U.S. plane out of the sky. The Soviet-era North Korean air force is considered little threat to American or allied troops.

“I doubt very much that any of the aircraft would be successful taking on our fighter escorts,” said David Maxwell, associate director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies and a retired Army colonel who served five tours in South Korea. “If their aircraft attack ours we are going to have a lot of aces,” he added.

Pyongyang is suspected of having thousands of Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles that could actually reach U.S. planes flying outside of North Korean airspace. But those are old systems that U.S. and allied aircraft like the B-1 and B-2 bombers are designed to track and either jam electronically, or avoid.

The newest technology is the indigenously produced KN-06 surface-to-air missile, which Kim touted earlier this year when it went operational after a series of successful tests. The road-mobile missile has a likely range of less than 100 miles, experts estimate, and is based on the Russian S-300 and Chinese HQ-9/FT-2000 systems. The newer air defense systems probably wouldn’t pose a risk to U.S. flights off the coast, experts said.

“Thus in practice the North Korean regime appears to be trying to look strong, and to deter outside threats by bluster,“ said Bruce Bennett, a researcher at RAND who specializes in military hardware.  

The last time North Korea fired on a U.S. aircraft was in 1994, when the North shot down a U.S. Army helicopter, killing one of the pilots and capturing the other. The surviving pilot, who was eventually released, later said he was abused by his captors and forced to sign a confession that he had crossed into North Korean territory. The Americans insisted that the helicopter was flying in the demilitarized zone.

 

Photo Credit: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

 

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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