News analysis

North Korea’s vow to carry out threat remains to be seen despite escalating rhetoric: Analysts

SEOUL - North Korea has warned it would detonate the "most powerful" hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean following United States President Donald Trump's threat to "totally destroy" the regime, a move that sent tensions soaring in the region.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in a rare media statement on Friday (Sept 22), said the US will "pay dearly" for the threat Mr Trump issued during his speech at the United Nations. He called Mr Trump a "mentally deranged US dotard" and vowed the "highest level of hardline countermeasure in history" against the US.

Hours later, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho told reporters in New York that the highest-level action could be "the most powerful detonation of an H-bomb in the Pacific".

Analysts are hardly surprised by the escalating rhetoric, noting that Mr Trump had used strong words in his UN speech that would provoke North Korea. He said on Sept 19 the US, if forced to defend itself or its allies, "will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea".

 
 
 

Mr Trump's speech provided rationale for "more aggressive" reaction from the North, said Dr Choi Kang, vice-president of research at The Asan Institute for Policy Studies think thank.

Dr Bong Young Shik of Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies said Mr Kim "felt insulted and he's angry", and therefore felt the need to further ratchet up tensions.

Whether Pyongyang will carry out the threat, however, remains to be seen.

Dr Bong told The Straits Times there could be three scenarios.

First, he said, North Korea could indeed send a ship out to the Pacific Ocean with materials to conduct a nuclear test. "But the US may try to interdict and seize the ship, and North Korea would consider it an act of war."

Second, Pyongyang could fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) mounted with a nuclear warhead over Japan to land in the Pacific Ocean. "But that would be regarded by Japan as an act of aggression, and the US and Japan will try to intercept or launch a pre-emptive strike."

Or, it could be mere rhetoric with no concrete action, he added.

What seems certain though is that North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear programme, even after the United Nations imposed stronger sanctions and more countries are cutting ties with the regime after it conducted its sixth nuclear test on Sept 3.

Said Dr Bong: "North Korea will continue to test nuclear warheads and ICBMs, because they are far from acquiring... nuclear strike capability."