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North Korea

North Korea threatens to turn U.S. mainland into a 'theater of nuclear war'

North Koreans rally in support of their country's stance against the U.S., on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on Wednesday. (Kim Woh Jin / AFP/Getty Images)
North Koreans rally in support of their country's stance against the U.S., on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on Wednesday. (Kim Woh Jin / AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump’s statement that North Korea will meet with “fire and fury” if it continues to threaten the U.S. sent a cascade of anger, anxiety and concern through Northeast Asia’s halls of power on Wednesday.

North Korea responded with vitriol. In a statement, its Korean People’s Army threatened to "turn the U.S. mainland into the theater of a nuclear war,” sending a strong signal that Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions remain unchecked. A U.S. strike on North Korea missile and nuclear targets would be “mercilessly repelled,” the statement continued.

Pyongyang also organized a giant rally on Wednesday against a strict round of sanctions passed by the U.N. Security Council over the weekend. Tens of thousands of people packed Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang; pictures online show them waving propaganda placards, their fists in the air.

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China responded with an exhortation to turn down the hostile rhetoric and pursue diplomatic solutions. “Unless there's a return to reason and a full commitment to a practical and peaceful solution, such a hostile approach will do little but make things worse,” said a commentary on the state-run New China News Agency.

South Korea, meanwhile, has increasingly prioritized a buildup of its defense systems, raising the specter of a regional arms race. On Wednesday, South Korea’s newly elected, liberal president, Moon Jae-in, called for “complete defense reform at the level of a rebirth,” according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap. Japan is also mulling over a military buildup.

The three disparate reactions speak to the depth of the region’s political divides, and the unpredictability of the ongoing crisis.

Washington has been deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a nuclear-armed North Korea for decades. Yet President Trump has proved to be less predictable than his predecessors and more inclined toward violent rhetoric, raising the possibility of armed conflict.

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North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un prizes his country’s nuclear and missile programs as crucial deterrents against the United States and points of national pride. “It is the instinct of the human being to protect himself or herself from the attack of brutes,” North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said in a commentary on Wednesday.

China, meanwhile, is invested in preserving the status quo; although Beijing is also uncomfortable with North Korea’s nuclear program, it’s equally worried that instability in Pyongyang would send a flood of North Korean refugees into Northeast China and perhaps result in a reunited Korea, friendly with the U.S., on its northeastern border.

“Pyongyang should suspend its ballistic missile and nuclear programs while Washington and Seoul suspend their joint military drills,” the New China News Agency commentary said.

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