PYONGYANG, North Korea — President Donald Trump’s tweets are adding fuel to a "vicious cycle" of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s vice foreign minister told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Friday. The official added that if the U.S. shows any sign of "reckless" military aggression, Pyongyang is ready to launch a pre-emptive strike of its own.
Vice Minister Han Song Ryol said Pyongyang has determined the Trump administration is "more vicious and more aggressive" than that of his predecessor, Barack Obama. He added that North Korea will keep building up its nuclear arsenal in "quality and quantity" and said Pyongyang is ready to go to war if that’s what Trump wants.
Tensions between Pyongyang and Washington go back to President Harry Truman and the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. But the heat has been rising rapidly since Trump took office in January.
This year’s joint war games between the U.S. and South Korean militaries are the biggest ever; the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier has been diverted back to the waters off Korea after heading for Australia; and U.S. satellite imagery suggests the North could conduct another underground nuclear test at any time. Pyongyang recently tested a ballistic missile and claims it is close to perfecting an intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear warhead that could attack the U.S. mainland.
Many experts believe that at its current pace of testing, North Korea could reach that potentially game-changing milestone within a few years — under Trump’s watch as president. Despite reports that Washington is considering military action if the North goes ahead with another nuclear test, Han did not rule out the possibility of a test in the near future.
"That is something that our headquarters decides," he said during the 40-minute interview in Pyongyang, which is now gearing up for a major holiday — and possibly a big military parade — on Saturday. "At a time and at a place where the headquarters deems necessary, it will take place."
The North conducted two such tests last year alone. The first was of what it claims to have been a hydrogen bomb and the second was its most powerful ever.
The annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises have consistently infuriated the North, which views them as rehearsals for an invasion. Washington and Seoul deny that, but reports that exercises have included "decapitation strikes" aimed at the North’s leadership have fanned Pyongyang’s anger.
Han said Trump’s tweets have also added fuel to the flames.
Trump posted a tweet Tuesday in which he said the North is "looking for trouble" and reiterated his call for more pressure from Beijing, North Korea’s economic lifeline, to clamp down on trade and strengthen its enforcement of U.N. sanctions to persuade Pyongyang to denuclearize.
Trump has threatened that if Beijing isn’t willing to do more to squeeze the North, the U.S. might take the matter into its own hands.
"Trump is always making provocations with his aggressive words," Han said. "It’s not the DPRK but the U.S. and Trump that makes trouble."
North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Han said the sanctions approach is misguided and cited the opening ceremony of a sprawling new high-rise residential area in Pyongyang on Thursday as evidence that sanctions have failed to ruin the country’s economy. Leader Kim Jong Un presided over the ceremony before about 100,000 residents and a large contingent of foreign journalists who have been allowed in to cover the holiday.
Han dismissed the suggestion Trump made last year during his presidential campaign that he was willing to meet Kim Jong Un, possibly over hamburgers.
"I think that was nothing more than lip service during the campaign to make himself more popular," Han said.
"Now we are comparing Trump’s policy toward the DPRK with the former administration’s and we have concluded that it’s becoming more vicious and more aggressive," Han said.
"Whatever comes from U.S. politicians, if their words are designed to overthrow the DPRK system and government, we will categorically reject them," he said.
Han said North Korea changed its military strategy two years ago, when the reports of "decapitation strike" training began to really get attention, to stress pre-emptive actions.
"We’ve got a powerful nuclear deterrent already in our hands, and we certainly will not keep our arms crossed in the face of a U.S. pre-emptive strike," he said. "Whatever comes from the U.S., we will cope with it. We are fully prepared to handle it."
How much such comments are bluster, or how realistic they are, is hard to gauge.
Later Friday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said all sides must stop provoking and threatening and start taking a flexible approach to resuming dialogue. He said China is willing to support any such effort.
"Once a war really happens, the result will be nothing but multiple-loss. No one can become a winner," Wang said. "No matter who it is, if it wants to make war or trouble on the Korean Peninsula, it must take the historical responsibility and pay the due price."
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Han’s remarks on the North’s readiness to conduct a nuclear test and even go to war reveal the "true colors of North Korea’s government that is bellicose and a breaker of regulations."
The ministry issued a statement saying North Korea will face strong punishment it will find hard to withstand if it makes a significant provocation, such as another nuclear test or an ICBM launch.
Military experts generally agree a shooting war with North Korea would likely be far more costly than something along the lines of the recent targeted strike Trump ordered against a Syrian air base believed to be linked to a chemical weapons attack by the regime of Bashir Assad. That attack alarmed the North and was condemned as "unpardonable" by Pyongyang, which counts Syria as an ally.
Even without nuclear weapons, the North could cause severe damage and casualties with its conventional artillery batteries aimed at the South Korean capital of Seoul. North Korea’s military is also heavily dug in, meaning it could be hard to find and destroy key targets, or to secure the North’s nuclear weapons even if its leadership were attacked.
Despite talk of conflict in the halls of power, life in Pyongyang has been pretty much normal over the past week as the country gears up for its biggest holiday of the year: the 105th anniversary of the birth of the late Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder and leader Kim Jong Un’s grandfather.
The Saturday anniversary may provide the world with a look at some of its arsenal. Expectations are high the North may put its newest missiles on display during a military parade that could be held to mark the event.
Another big military holiday comes on April 25, when its army marks its anniversary.