On Monday, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho delivered a special statement after U.S. President Donald J. Trump warned that North Korea would not survive “much longer” if it continued on its current path. Ri, who is in New York City for the general debate of the United Nation General Assembly, where he spoke on Saturday, pushed back against Trump’s latest threat.
Reiterating Kim Jong-un’s unprecedented statement in the first-person after Trump’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly last week, Ri emphasized that the U.S. president’s threats were a “declaration of war.”
Ri added a threat of his own, underlining North Korea’s “right to shoot down the United States’ strategic bombers even when they’re not yet inside the airspace border of our country.” He concluded: “The question of who won’t be around much longer will be answered then.”
Ri’s threat not only comes after Trump’s latest Twitter threat, but also after a U.S. B-1B Lancer heavy bomber flew north of the 38th Parallel in the Sea of Japan, near North Korea’s coast.
A U.S. Pacific Command spokesperson noted that the flight was the “farthest north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) any U.S. fighter or bomber aircraft have flown off North Korea’s coast in the 21st century.”
North Korea has long lamented these U.S. flights, which are seen by Washington as a way to assure its allies in Seoul and Tokyo of its resolve against North Korea. Pyongyang, however, sees the flights as a highly threatening gesture. It claims that the B-1B Lancer continues to serve a nuclear delivery mission, even thought the United States has physically disabled these aircraft from delivering nuclear weapons under its bilateral arms control commitments with Russia.
North Korea’s threat to shoot down a U.S. bomber or other aircraft, however, deserves to be taken seriously. Even though North Korea hasn’t engaged in any serious act of conventional brinkmanship against the United States or South Korea since the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong-do and the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, it has a long history of serious conventional provocations.
In 1994, it shot down a U.S. helicopter and, in 1969, it shot down a U.S. EC-121 surveillance aircraft, killing all 31 crew aboard. Today, as the war of words between the United States and North Korea seemingly grows hotter with every month, conventional brinkmanship is easily imaginable. North Korea’s new nuclear weapons, in fact, by deterring the United States from attack, may allow it to be more adventurous than it has been in the past.
Ri’s threat is clearly preemptive, intending to deter U.S. aircraft from buzzing North Korea’s illegal and expansive claim of a territorial sea and air space to 50 miles from its coastal baselines per a 1977 proclamation. (North Korea calls this its Military Boundary Zone or MBZ.) It’s unclear where exactly last week’s B-1B flew, but it may have entered this area, which is the United States Air Force generally avoids out of concern for North Korean retaliation.
Even with the precedent of the 1994 and 1969 events (and other highly provocative North Korean endeavors, like the seizure of the USS Pueblo), there is the matter of capabilities. Taking down a supersonic B-1B heavy strategic bomber is no easy task.
There’s really two ways North Korea could shoot down a U.S. bomber. It could scramble the Korean People’s Air Force, which is primarily comprised of obsolete mostly Soviet-era and some Chinese aircraft, or it could use some of the ground-based surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems in its possession, including the S-200 and its own indigenous KN06 (Pongae-5) SAM, which was declared to be operational and ready for mass production just earlier this year. (Other systems like its S-75s and S-125s won’t be able to range targets that far out.)
The first option seems unlikely, even though North Korea has made intercept attempts against U.S. surveillance aircraft in the past over the Sea of Japan and may even be increasing the readiness level of the KPAF over the past day. No aircraft in the KPAF’s inventory is suited for a dogfight with the fourth-generation fighters that would likely accompany a B-1B on a deterrence flight near North Korea’s MBZ. Indeed, even operations at nighttime — when the most recent B-1B mission took place, for instance — are an insurmountable challenge for the KPAF.
That leaves the second and, in my view, the more likely option: North Korea would endeavor to use its air defense systems. The KN06 appears externally similar to the Russian S-300 (SA-10 Grumble), the successor system to the S-200. With a claimed range of 150 kilometers for its interceptor, it would certainly be able to range targets outside, but near North Korea’s claimed MBZ.
It’s unclear thought if North Korea possesses the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities necessary to acquire a B-1B in high-altitude supersonic flight as a target. While far from a stealth aircraft, the B-1B is thought to feature an impressively reduced radar cross-section for an older strategic bomber (though still an order of magnitude greater than the cross-section of a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber).
Without a better sense of the exact constellation of North Korea’s KN06 placements around the country and its ISR capabilities, it’s impossible to say just how realistic a bomber shoot-down would be, but it’s not inconceivable that North Korea would attempt some kind of new provocation at the conventional level.
The ongoing war of words has grown intensely personal for Kim Jong-un, with him feeling the need to release a statement that once seemed unimaginable to push back against Trump. The United States doesn’t appear likely to back down from its B-1B flights anytime soon either, given the role it sees for these missions as important allied reassurance tools — all the more critical in the age of ICBM-driven decoupling.
The stakes will remain high and the chances for escalation as well. Remember North Korea’s threat to strike the waters near Guam in August too. Kim Rak-gyom, the head of North Korea’s Strategic Rocket Forces, said that Kim Jong-un would give the order if and when he desired. Guam continues to be a special target for North Korean ire, given that it hosts U.S. Pacific Command’s permanent bomber presence assets in the Pacific, including the B-1Bs.
If not an attempted SAM shoot-down in the skies over the Sea of Japan, then North Korea could always take its next escalatory threat with a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile flight into the Pacific Ocean. It’s already done so twice over Japan, showing that it can strike Guam if it so desired. All Kim Jong-un would have to do to make that message clearer is adjust its azimuth for a third such launch.