In an interview with Russia’s state-run media, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho said that U.S. President Donald Trump’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September “lit the wick of war.”
“By his bellicose and insane statement in the U.N. arena, Trump—it can be said—lit the wick of war against us,” said Ri, as transcribed by CNN.
“We need to settle the final score, only with a hail of fire, not words,” he added, vowing that North Korea “will not leave America, the aggressor state, unpunished.”
In a comment that might have sounded better before it was translated, Ri said the United States should “act sensibly and stop touching us if they do not want to disgrace themselves in the face of the whole world.” (Other sources have translated his words as “act sensibly and stop troubling us.”)
Ri deemed negotiations impossible as long as the United States “resorts to maximum pressure and sanctions” plus “outrageous military threats” against North Korea. He added that North Korea’s relations with South Korea will not improve as long as Seoul follows Washington’s lead.
As for the progress of North Korea’s nuclear missile program, Ri claimed his government has “nearly achieved the final point on the way to our ultimate goal, to achieving a real balance of force with the United States.”
Ri Yong-ho has been the source of some of North Korea’s most inflammatory remarks of late, but a profile at the L.A. Times two weeks ago said U.S. officials have long regarded him as one of the more reasonable and accessible of Pyongyang’s representatives.
“He was put in that job for the purpose of being the negotiator. His specialty is negotiating with Americans. He is not one of these guys who acts like a caricature of a communist apparatchik. He has a great sense of humor. He is very creative in coming up with wording acceptable to both sides,” said former U.S. diplomat Gary Samore, now of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Samore thought Ri felt obliged to respond forcefully to President Trump’s tough rhetoric and is “winging it to some extent,” accounting for some of the more bizarre and belligerent comments he has made, such as threatening to shoot down American bombers flying outside North Korean airspace.
Much the same assessment was given by former diplomat Evans Revere, who also cited Ri’s “interesting self-deprecating sense of humor.”
“He’s soft-spoken and eloquent, not a table-pounder,” said Revere.
Yet another former diplomat, Joel S. Wit, added advice that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should consider one-on-one talks with Ri, whose diplomatic experience and close ties to the family of dictator Kim Jong-un might make him “the best chance for finding a way forward.”