WHITE HOUSE — North Korea's military responded fiercely Friday to U.S. President Donald Trump's threat to "take care of" Pyongyang's aggressive policies. Concerns remained high about a possible military provocation by the North on its national holiday Saturday, but there was no sign of nuclear activity during the early-morning hours.
North Korea is celebrating the "Day of the Sun," its annual commemoration of its founding leader, Kim Il Sung, who was born 105 years ago. Kim, who died in 1994 after 46 years as the communist state's "supreme leader," was the grandfather of its current leader, Kim Jong Un.
The national holiday has been celebrated in the past with demonstrations of the North's military prowess. Speculation about a nuclear test explosion on the holiday sharply increased in recent days, but Pyongyang has given no clue about its plans.
After Trump denounced North Korea on Thursday as a problem for the entire world that "will be taken care of," the North Korean People's Army responded with a characteristic statement vowing dire consequences: "Our toughest counteraction against the United States and its vassal forces will be taken in such a merciless manner as not to allow the aggressors to survive."
The statement, attributed to a spokesman for army's general staff, continued: "Under the prevailing grave situation, the United States has to come to its senses and make a proper option for the solution of the problem."
Pyongyang's statement was circulated by the North's official Korean Central News Agency and broadcast by its central radio network. There was no comment from the White House or the National Security Council in Washington.
Amid all the tough talk, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, are heading to the Asia-Pacific region Sunday on a 10-day trip, with their first stop in Seoul, South Korea's capital.
The vice president's press secretary, Marc Lotter, told VOA that Pence would reaffirm Trump's commitment to strengthen U.S. alliances and partnerships throughout the region. The message Pence will carry, Lotter added, is that the U.S.-South Korea alliance is the linchpin of peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.
Rhetoric similar to the statement Pyongyang released late Friday is fairly common, but remarks by its military command are taken more seriously by intelligence and defense analysts than are those from government ministries or state media commentators.
China's Foreign Ministry on Friday described the current situation on the Korean Peninsula as "complex and sensitive."
"We have appealed to relevant various parties multiple times to keep calm and exercise restraint, not make moves that may heighten tensions of the peninsula. All the similar acts are irresponsible and also are dangerous," spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing.
In his comments about North Korea on Thursday, Trump noted that China was "working very hard" to try to defuse the international tension over North Korea, and that he was hopeful Beijing's diplomacy would be effective.
An American aircraft carrier and other warships have been steaming toward the Korean Peninsula in a show of force, although there has been no specific U.S. threat of retaliatory action if Pyongyang conducts another nuclear test or launches more missiles in defiance of U.N. sanctions.
Scores of foreign journalists have been in Pyongyang this week for the "Day of the Sun" celebrations. Five years ago, Kim Il Sung's centenary was marked by a failed attempt to launch a North Korean satellite, and last year Pyongyang tested a newly developed intermediate-range missile — also a failure.
Satellite photographs this week have shown activity around the North's Punggye-ri nuclear test site, which could be taken to indicate another underground nuclear test is imminent.
Meanwhile, South Korean and American troops are preparing for joint military exercises, a regular event that Pyongyang has denounced as a prelude to an invasion. If that occurs, the North has said, it would be justified in launching a massive counterattack. But a spokesman for the South Korean joint chiefs of staff said Seoul had seen no indication that any military action by the North was imminent.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo told a security forum in Washington that North Korea's military development has progressed to a point where Pyongyang is now closer than ever to being able to threaten the United States with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental missile. That, in turn, has reduced U.S. defense officials' options about how to respond to the North Korean threat, Pompeo added during remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He indicated that a worst-case scenario would force the U.S. to take action against the North, and that would be "a tough day for the leader of North Korea."
VOA's Elizabeth Hughes, Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb and national security correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.
This story first appeared on Voice of America & is reposted here with permission.