The Long History of North Korea's Declarations of War

What's different now: a U.S. president ready and willing to make his own destructive promises

Released crewmen of the USS Pueblo are escorted by MPs off a helicopter.
Released crewmen of the USS Pueblo are escorted by MPs upon their arrival at the U.S. Army 121st Evacuation Hospital at Ascom City, near Seoul, on December 23, 1968.  (AP)

When Ri Yong Ho, the foreign minister of North Korea, called U.S. President Donald Trump’s fiery speech at the United Nations a “declaration of war” on Monday morning, the phrase ricocheted across Twitter. Within roughly an hour, Politico, The Independent, The New York Times, Business Insider, and even Gizmodo featured Ri’s words in their headline. Bloomberg Markets tweeted the quote, followed by the terse sentence “stocks dropped,” and a menacing photo of what looked like a precipitous decline in the S&P 500 (but which was really just a roughly 0.4 percent fall).

As it turns out, though, North Korean officials refer to actions as a declarations of war roughly as often as Trump claims that CNN is fake news.

In July 2016, the United States sanctioned Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, and 10 other officials for human rights abuses. North Korea’s official news agency called the sanctions a “declaration of war.” In February 2016, Seoul announced it was withdrawing from Kaesong, an industrial complex in North Korea which had symbolized cooperation between the two sides since its opening in 2004. Pyongyang said the pull-out amounted to a “declaration of war.” In February 2013, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test. After the UN voted to sanction the nation in March, Pyongyang vowed to pre-emptively strike the United States with nuclear weapons. “Time has come to stage a do-or-die final battle,” North Korean state media wrote in a statement entitled the “Full War Declaration Statement from DPRK.” This most recent occasion isn’t even the first instance of Pyongyang using the phrase during the Trump presidency. In May, North Korea’s UN Mission claimed U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies were working together to try to assassinate Kim. This “terrorist” plot, the mission said, was a “declaration of war.” In fact, North Korea has used this phrase so often that in October 2006, the satirical newspaper The Onion published a story entitled “Kim Jong Il Interprets Sunrise as Act of War.” North Korea’s then-leader Kim, according to the Onion, claimed the sunrise was “‘another hostile, deliberately timed act by the world community’” and “‘a clear and blatant declaration of war.’”

The heartening—and, for Americans, deeply sad—reality about this particular crisis is that neither Trump nor Pyongyang feel any fealty to the truth. Neither side believes the other will take his remarks at face value, and both sides seem to understand that the other rarely follows through. Kim “has been very threatening beyond a normal state,” Trump said in August, “and as I said, [his country] will be met with fire and fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” What was striking about Trump’s threat, beyond its immorality, was its impossibility. The world has seen genocides and nuclear destruction and horrific massacres—somehow, Trump would exceed all that? It was an inconceivable threat, similar to when North Korea, in April, hinted at plans to nuke Australia, a country it almost entirely ignores, because of its close ties with America. (Like Trump, Kim is no stranger to lobbing personal insults. He called Trump a “dotard”; Trump called Kim “little Rocket Man,” and described him as “obviously a madman.”)

And while North Korea now has the potential to successfully strike the United States with a nuclear-tipped weapon, it’s worth remembering that it acted far more provocatively during the Cold War, when it had a close relationship with the Soviet Union. At that time, Washington understood that North Korean provocations—even when they led to the loss of U.S. lives—could be countered with shows of military might, diplomacy, and restraint. War was unnecessary. In the bizarre 1976 Axe Murder Incident, North Koreans killed two U.S. soldiers for trimming a tree in the Demilitarized Zone, the border that separates the two sides of the peninsula. In the aptly named Operation Paul Bunyan, President Gerald Ford responded by “launching one of the strongest shows of combined U.S. land, air, naval and special operations forces in peacetime history,” according to journalist Gordon F. Sander, sending in a U.S. military team to finish hacking the tree. For the first and only known time in history, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung responded with a formal statement of regret, Sander wrote.

On one of my visits to Pyongyang, our North Korean guides proudly took us on a tour around the USS Pueblo, a U.S. navy spy ship. In 1968, North Korean soldiers seized the ship, killing a crew member in the process. The remaining 82 crew members were tortured and held hostage for nearly a year. U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson decided diplomacy was the best way to bring the Americans home—but officials in the Pentagon did consider responding with nuclear weapons, according to a now-declassified Pentagon memo.

And in 1969, in perhaps the biggest provocation to Washington since it signed an armistice agreement with Pyongyang in 1953 following the Korean War, North Korean fighter jets downed an American spy plane, killing all 31 Americans aboard. Although he exercised restraint in his response, U.S. President Richard M. Nixon reportedly considered responding with nuclear weapons. Robert Wampler, a historian who works for George Washington University’s National Security Archive project, told NPR in 2010 that the military provided the White House with a wide range of options on how to respond, including a war and the use of nuclear weapons. “But constantly you find the military saying, ‘but the risks probably still outweigh the potential gains,’” he said at the time.

The difference—and that which should worry Americans and North Koreans—is Trump. His absence of self-control, his susceptibility to flattery, his lack of political and military experience, and his sensitivity to slights, make him unsuited to recognize that often a path of restraint is in the best interest of the United States and the world. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States reacted with restraint in part because of a fear that attacking North Korea would spark a war with the Soviet Union.

Now, North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and its ability to decimate Seoul, serve as the deterrent. North Korea has long claimed the United States has “declared war” on North Korea. And they’ve even committed actions tantamount to declarations of war: Indeed, journalist Jack Cheevers titled his book on the capture of the Pueblo “Act of War.” But this is the first time a United States president might lack the judgment and restraint to downplay them.