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[NEW YORK] North Korea's foreign minister on Monday accused US President Donald Trump of declaring war against his country and said Pyongyang was ready to defend itself by shooting down US bombers.
The White House dismissed the claim as "absurd".
Speaking to reporters outside his New York hotel, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho responded to Mr Trump, who had warned on Twitter at the weekend that North Korea "won't be around much longer" if it keeps up its threats.
Mr Ri, who attended this year's UN General Assembly session, said the international community had hoped that a "war of words" would "not turn into real actions." "However, last weekend, Trump claimed our leadership would not be around much longer," Mr Ri said. "He declared a war on our country."
Alarm over Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile programs dominated this year's gathering of world leaders at the United Nations, amid fears the heated rhetoric could accidentally trigger a war.
Those fears were further heightened after US bombers flew off the coast of North Korea on Saturday.
"Since the United States declared war on our country, we will have every right to take counter-measures including the right to shoot down US strategic bombers even when they are not yet inside the airspace border of our country," said Mr Ri.
"The question of who won't be around much longer will be answered then." The foreign minister said the statement from Trump was "clearly a declaration of war" even if it came from the US president. Under the US Constitution, Congress is the sole power that can declare war.
The White House disputed the Mr Ri's interpretation of Mr Trump's saber rattling.
"We have not declared war against North Korea and frankly the suggestion of that is absurd," said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
RISK OF ACCIDENTAL CLASH
As the rhetoric heated up, South Korea appealed for an easing of tensions, with Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha saying that further provocations can be expected from Pyongyang but must not be allowed to get out of control.
"It is imperative that we, Korea and the US together, manage the situation... in order to prevent further escalation of tensions or any kind of accidental military clashes which can quickly go out of control," Mr Kang said in Washington.
South Korea has reacted with unease to Mr Trump's threat to "totally destroy" North Korea as its densely-populated capital Seoul is located just 35 miles from the demilitarised zone separating the Korean peninsula.
In his UN address last week, Mr Trump delivered the blunt threat and derided leader Kim Jong Un as "Rocket Man" and declared he was "on a suicide mission."
Kim hit back with a personal attack on Mr Trump, branding him "mentally deranged" and a "dotard" and warning he would "pay dearly" for his threat.
There have been repeated appeals for calm from the United Nations, Russia and China.
Asked about the North Korean minister's latest remarks, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric acknowledged the dangerous spike in tensions, saying: "When you have the rise of tension, the rise of rhetoric, so does the risk of miscalculation."
North Korea in recent weeks detonated its sixth nuclear bomb and has test-fired intercontinental missiles - saying it needs to defend itself against hostility from the United States and its allies.
Just hours before Mr Ri took the UN podium on Saturday, US bombers flew off the east coast of North Korea, the furthest north of the demilitarised zone that any US aircraft has flown this century.
The Pentagon described the mission as a "demonstration of US resolve and a clear message that the president has many military options to defeat any threat."
A Pentagon spokesman stressed on Monday that the bombers flew in international airpace. "So we have the right to fly, sail and operate and we are legal permissible around the globe," he said.
In his UN address, Mr Ri warned that Mr Trump's threat to destroy North Korea made "our rockets' visit to the entire US mainland all the more inevitable.
The bellicose rhetoric comes as international alarm mounts over Pyongyang's weapons ambitions - including a suggestion by Mr Ri last week that the country is considering detonating an H-bomb over the Pacific.
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has said such a move would be a "shocking display of irresponsibility."
As tensions over North Korea reached fever-pitch, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called a snap election, hoping to capitalise on a boost in the polls that some say is linked to his hawkish stance toward Pyongyang.