(Corrects to Sanders instead of ‘Saunders’ paragraph 3)
* North Korea suggestion that war declared ‘absurd’ -White House
* China calls for calm amid shrill rhetoric from U.S., N. Korea
* Japan’s Abe says snap election not to distract from North Korea
* North Korean has right to take countermeasures -foreign minister
By Michelle Nichols and Christine Kim
NEW YORK/SEOUL, Sept 25 (Reuters) - North Korea’s foreign minister said on Monday President Donald Trump had declared war on North Korea and that Pyongyang reserved the right to take countermeasures, including shooting down U.S. bombers even if they are not in its air space.
Ri Yong Ho said a Twitter message by Trump on Saturday in which the president warned that the minister and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “won’t be around much longer” if they acted on their threats amounted to a declaration of war.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders on Monday denied the United States had declared war, calling the suggestion “absurd”.
Speaking earlier in New York, where he had been attending the annual U.N. General Assembly, Ri told reporters: “The whole world should clearly remember it was the U.S. who first declared war on our country.”
”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.
“The question of who won’t be around much longer will be answered then,” Ri added.
On Saturday, U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers escorted by fighters flew in international airspace over waters east of North Korea in a show of force after a heated exchange of rhetoric between Trump and Kim over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
The Pentagon said the flight was the farthest north of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea that any U.S. fighter jet or bomber has flown in the 21st century.
“That operation was conducted in international airspace, over international waters, so we have the right to fly, sail and operate where legally permissible around the globe,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Robert Manning said on Monday.
North Korea, which has remained technically at war with the United States since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce and not a peace treaty, has been working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the U.S. mainland and conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test this month.
Pyongyang accuses the United States, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea, of planning to invade and regularly threatens to destroy it and its Asian allies.
However, the recent spike in rhetoric from both sides has fuelled tensions and raised fears of miscalculation by one side or the other that could have massive repercussions.
U.S. Treasury yields fell to session lows after Ri’s comments on Monday.
The Pentagon said the bomber flight indicated the range of military options available to Trump, but U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed that despite the war of words, the administration prefers a negotiated solution to the crisis.
A defense expert, Bruce Bennett of the Rand Corp think tank, said North Korea would have difficulties shooting down a U.S. bomber with missiles or fighter planes given its limited capabilities, and if it tried and failed, would appear weak.
“It is unlikely to take such a risk,” he said. “So this sounds like another attempt by North Korea to ‘deter by bluster’ U.S. actions the regime does not like.”
The latest round of heavy verbal salvoes began when Trump threatened in his maiden U.N. address last Tuesday to “totally destroy” North Korea, a country of 26 million people, if it threatened the United States or its allies.
In an unprecedented direct statement on Friday, Kim responded by calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” whom he would tame with fire.
Kim said North Korea would consider the “highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history” against the United States and that Trump’s comments had confirmed Pyongyang’s nuclear programme was “the correct path”.
Ri told the U.N. General Assembly on Saturday that targeting the U.S. mainland with its rockets was inevitable after “Mr Evil President” Trump called Kim a “rocket man” on a suicide mission.
On Twitter late Saturday, Trump replied: “Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!”
On Monday, North Korea, which has pursued its missile and nuclear programs in defiance of international sanctions, said it “bitterly condemned the reckless remarks” of Trump.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday that the only solution to the crisis was a political one.
“Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
China, North Korea’s neighbour and main ally, which has nevertheless backed U.N. sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, called on Monday for all sides to show restraint.
“We want things to calm down. It’s getting too dangerous and it’s in nobody’s interest,” China’s U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi told Reuters.
“We certainly hope that (the United States and North Korea) will see that there is no other way than negotiations to solve the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula ... The alternative is a disaster.”
In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang described the situation as highly complex and sensitive. He said it was vitally important that everyone strictly, fully and correctly implement all North Korea-related U.N. resolutions, which call for both tighter sanctions and efforts to resume dialogue.
Speaking to British Prime Minister Theresa May by telephone, Chinese President Xi Jinping repeated Beijing’s position that the North Korean issue should be resolved peacefully via talks and hoped Britain could play a constructive role in pushing for this, Chinese state media said.
Downing Street said the two leaders agreed there was a particular responsibility for China and Britain, as permanent Security Council members, to help find a diplomatic solution.
Ri warned on Friday that North Korea might test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean, in what would be North Korea’s first atmospheric nuclear test. Experts said such a move, while perhaps not imminent, would be proof of North Korea’s ability to successfully deliver a nuclear warhead on a missile. (Reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Christine Kim in Seoul; Additional reporting buy David Brunnstrom, Idrees Ali and Doina Chiacu in Washington, Zhu Zhang in Beijing, Elizabeth Piper in London and Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo; Writing by Philip Wen and David Brunnstrom; Editing by James Dalgleish and Grant McCool)