The United States and North Korea are resorting to alluded threats of force ahead of Pyongyang's end-of-year deadline for progress with nuclear negotiations.
Pak Jong Chon, head of the Korean People's Army (KPA), threatened to reciprocate any U.S. military action with force in a statement he made to North Korean state media Wednesday. The statement was a direct response to comments made by President Trump, who alluded to using military force against North Korea if necessary.
"One thing I would like to make clear is that the use of armed forces is not the privilege of the U.S. only," Pak reportedly said through North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) Dec. 4. "Anyone can guess with what action the DPRK will answer if the U.S. undertakes military actions against the DPRK."
Hours earlier, Trump spoke about North Korea to reporters at the NATO summit in London: "Now we have the most powerful military we've ever had and we're by far the most powerful country in the world. And, hopefully, we don't have to use it, but if we do, we'll use it. If we have to, we'll do it."
While it's true that the United States and North Korea have exchanged numerous threats since Trump took office in January 2017, some experts believe that the latest exchange is a grave sign of rising tensions.
"There has been a pattern all year in North Korea's statements. They have been quite deliberate about not directly criticizing Trump," said John Delury, a North Korea analyst and an associate professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. "This rhetoric - where Trump and Kim are starting to move toward directly criticizing one another or seeing each other as part of the problem - is significant."
Earlier this week, on Dec. 3, an official at North Korea's foreign ministry accused the United States of keeping North Korea "bound to dialogue" as a "foolish trick" or political tool to use for the 2020 presidential election. Ri Thae Song, the first vice minister, also stated that "it is entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get."
The uptick in tensions likely has to do with Kim Jong Un's Dec. 31, 2019, deadline to see tangible progress in nuclear negotiations from the United States. So far, North Korea has not stated what specific steps it would need to see from President Trump by the end of the year, but Delury said that Pyongyang purposely left it open-ended.
"Really, [North Korea's] position is that they've done a lot of stuff for the U.S. and Trump takes credit for it, but the U.S. has not done anything in return," Delury said. "So what they're saying is that the U.S. needs to acknowledge the positive steps that North Korea has made and do something to reciprocate."
The United States has repeatedly refused to lift economic sanctions against North Korea in return for several concessions from Pyongyang, including repatriating soldier remains from the Korean War, shutting down the Punggye-ri nuclear test site and ceasing all long-range missile and nuclear tests.
"Interestingly, the whole discussion on the American side has nothing to do with [making concessions]. It's more, 'What are we going to ask for next?'" Delury said. "You can see there's a big gap. From my reading of these statements, the Dec. 31 deadline isn't about locking in the next phase of steps. It's almost refers to locking in the current situation. The North Koreans are saying, 'You gotta do something to reciprocate.'"