North Korea’s ‘countermeasures’ mean the war of words might turn into actual war

North Koreans gather at Kim Il Sung Square to attend a mass rally against America on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea, a day after the country's leader issued a rare statement attacking Donald Trump. The sign on the left reads "decisive revenge" and the sign on the right reads "death to the American imperialists." CREDIT: Jon Chol Jin/AP Photo

Less than a week after President Donald Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea in his speech before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), North Korea’s foreign minister accused the United States of declaring war and promised “countermeasures.”

“The whole world should clearly remember it was the U.S. who first declared war on our country,” Ri Yong Ho told reporters in New York on Monday, after U.S. bombers flew over international airspace over North Korean waters on Saturday.

“Since the United States declared war on our country, we will have every right to make countermeasures, including the right to shoot down United States strategic bombers even when they are not inside the airspace border of our country.”

This comes on the tail of a week of hot rhetoric between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump referred to Kim as a “rocket man” on a “suicide mission” and Kim countered by calling Trump a “dotard” (senile) and likened his speech to the words to “the sound of a dog barking.” Over the weekend, Ri referred to Trump as “Mr. Evil President” in his speech at the UNGA.

But what, realistically, are North Korea’s options? Can the increasingly isolated state, hit with fresh U.N. sanctions just last week, really escalate tensions beyond a war of words?

“I think they understand that if they shoot down U.S. airplanes there is going to be a very serious reaction — but they could certainly do that,” said Terence Roehrig, professor and director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the US Naval War College, adding that he feels that most of this will stay “at the rhetorical level” while each side tries to deter the other.

But if North Korea were to follow through on its threat, it has a number of options besides shooting down U.S. aircraft. These range from the less provocative choices (say, military exercises) to ones that would be seen as major escalations, such as more missile tests.

Roehrig said a ballistic missile test — possibly with conventional warhead — is likely. “If the test tried to do or accomplish something it hadn’t before, for example, if they decided to drop a ballistic missile closer to Guam… if they decided instead of shooting it on lofted trajectory, if they decided to shoot it on a flatter trajectory, demonstrating its capability. If they put a warhead on it, even a conventional one, to see how it exploded — those kinds of things would be possible escalations on North Korea’s part.”

Another potential escalation, though a less likely one, said Roehrig, would be an “atmospheric test” — a missile test with a nuclear warhead that does not detonate underground.

“Of course, now you bring in all kinds of fallout and contamination issues — those things become a big problem… North Korea has tested underground, but not above ground,” said Roehrig. North Korea last  tested a hydrogen bomb underground on September 3. He said he doubts North Korea would go as far as to carry out an atmospheric nuclear test or shoot a U.S. aircraft outside their own airspace.

“They are good at the ‘diplomacy of outrage’ — so they are not going to back down rhetorically, but I think their interest and willingness to actually go kinetic are actually going to be pretty different,” he said.

However, Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told ThinkProgress that he’s worried about the increase in “the level of personal threats” between Trump and Kim.

“We’re at a very dangerous point because the North Koreans are laying down their own form of a red line, saying they will take action against U.S. strategic bomber flights,” he said. “That sets up a very dangerous situation that could easily spin out of control and lead to to conflict.”

He called military maneuvers, such as the ones the United States carried out on Saturday, “not necessary at a time of crisis like this,” even if it’s unclear whether the North Koreans can actually shoot the aircraft out of the sky, but, he added, “usually when the North Koreans have made a threat, they’ve tried to follow through.”

Kimball said the situation demands “an immediate cooling down” and that the U.N. Secretary General or other government might have to step in to mediate the conflict. “The Trump administration, the president himself, has shown that they’re perhaps not capable of stepping back.”