Skip to main content
north korea

This July 28, 2017, file photo released by KCNA shows an intercontinental ballistic missile being launched at an undisclosed location in North Korea.STR/AFP / Getty Images

The United States and North Korea threatened to rain destruction on each other in an escalation of rhetoric that followed a new U.S. defence assessment that concluded the defiant regime has successfully miniaturized a nuclear weapon to a size that can be installed on a long-range missile.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday, in an effort to outdo the bombast usually employed by Pyongyang, promised a reprisal of "fire and fury like the world has never seen" if North Korea makes good on threats to attack the United States, after two successful intercontinental ballistic missile tests by the isolated country.

North Korea, in turn, warned it is "carefully examining" plans to attack the U.S. territory of Guam, site of an American military base, with "enveloping fire."

Earlier in the day, Pyongyang had said it was ready to give Washington a "severe lesson."

But even as new rage infected an already dangerous security situation, Ottawa staged its own entry into the international community's fraught dealings with North Korea, dispatching a high-level delegation to Pyongyang to discuss the case of a Toronto pastor imprisoned there.

Daniel Jean, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's national-security and intelligence adviser, led a visit to Pyongyang to discuss pastor Hyeon Soo Lim, a senior government official told The Globe and Mail. Canada has sought the release of the pastor, but the delegation will also raise "other issues of regional concern," the official said. The news of Mr. Jean's visit was first reported by North Korean state-run media.

The Canadian representatives arrived in Pyongyang in a government plane, according to a source with knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity. Mr. Jean will return to Ottawa on Thursday, according to an e-mail out-of-office message, and the use of a government aircraft raised hopes that Canada was preparing to extract Mr. Lim. The Prime Minister's Office declined comment.

"If there is a Canadian delegation there, for whatever purpose, we are hopeful that Reverend Lim's release will be discussed," said Lisa Pak, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lim's family. "I don't think I can answer decisively that everything will work out but I can tell you that we are certainly always, always, always hoping that it will."

That hopeful possibility nonetheless did little to diminish the rising tensions surrounding North Korea and the risk of a collision between its nuclear-missile ambitions and an unpredictable Trump administration.

The security threat from North Korea has "entered a new stage," Japan's Defence Ministry warned on Tuesday, in a report that suggested the country is either nearing, or has already reached, the ability to assemble a nuclear-tipped missile.

"It is possible that North Korea has already achieved the miniaturization of nuclear weapons and has acquired nuclear warheads," the ministry said in an annual Defence White Paper.

A new U.S. analysis was more blunt: The intelligence community "assesses North Korea has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by ICBM-class missiles," according to a confidential defence analysis reported by The Washington Post.

But U.S. intelligence officials told Reuters that while North Korea has accelerated its efforts to design an ICBM, a miniaturized nuclear warhead, and a nosecone robust enough to survive re-entry through the Earth's atmosphere, there is no reliable evidence it has mastered all three, much less tested and combined them into a weapon capable of hitting targets in the United States.

"There's a lot that we don't know," about the North Korean nuclear weapons program, including whether Pyongyang has developed "the guidance and control system, guidance and stability control, to move a rocket that distance without it breaking up," U.S. Air Force General Paul Selva, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute last Thursday.

U.S. intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said there is no certainty about the number of nuclear warheads North Korea has assembled, with estimates ranging from 20 to as many as 60 and most experts leaning toward the lower end of that range.

Washington has warned it is ready to use force if need be to stop North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear programs but that it prefers global diplomatic action, including sanctions.

The United Nations Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea on Saturday over its continued missile tests that could slash the reclusive country's $3-billion (U.S.) annual export revenue by a third.

The Prime Minister's Office confirmed that Ottawa has sent a delegation to Pyongyang to discuss Mr. Lim's case, but would not provide any specifics about the visit.

"Pastor Lim's health and well-being remain of utmost importance to the Government of Canada as we continue to engage on this case," PMO spokesman Cameron Ahmad said in an e-mail.

"As this is an active case, we will not provide further comment at this time."

The visit marks at least the third time Canadians officials have visited Mr. Lim since he was imprisoned, most recently in December, 2016.

North Korea has said its laws dictate that any clemency decision come from its supreme leader, Chairman Kim Jong-un, and "that means that if it's going to happen, there's going to have to be some communication between the chairman's counterpart in Canada – who, of course, happens to be the prime minister," said a person with knowledge of the North Korean demands, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

That communication could take the form of a letter, but Canada has balked at any step that could make it look weak.

Still, North Korea's state news agency described Mr. Jean as "special envoy of the Canadian Prime Minister."

North Korea has also sought normalization of diplomatic relations, including accreditation of its ambassador to Canada, but its "No. 1" condition is "the respect element" of an appeal from Mr. Trudeau, the person said. "Everything beyond that is negotiable."

Mr. Lim, who is in his early 60s, was a pastor with the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ont. The church has said Mr. Lim visited North Korea more than 100 times since 1997, where he helped set up orphanages and nursing homes. Mr. Lim's relatives and colleagues have said he travelled to North Korea on Jan. 31, 2014, as part of a regular humanitarian mission to the country. He was later arrested and detained.

In December, 2015, he was sentenced to hard labour for life by North Korea's Supreme Court for what it says was an attempt to overthrow the regime.

The crimes Mr. Lim was charged with included harming the dignity of the supreme leadership, trying to use religion to destroy the North Korean system, disseminating negative propaganda about the North to overseas Koreans and helping U.S. and the South Korean authorities lure and abduct North Korean citizens, along with aiding their programs to assist defectors from the North.

Mr. Lim said in a January, 2016, interview with CNN that he spends eight hours a day digging holes at a labour camp where he has not seen any other prisoners. His church has said he has a "very serious health problem, very high blood pressure."

In the CNN interview, Mr. Lim said the experience has not shaken his faith, and he continues to pray.

"I hope I can go home some day," he told CNN. "Nobody knows if I will ever go home, but that is my hope. I miss my family. I am longing to see them again, and my congregation."

Canada established diplomatic relations with Pyongyang in 2001 but froze them in 2010. Ottawa now says it will only talk to North Korea about regional security, human rights and consular cases.

The ratcheting up in tensions between the United States and North Korea rattled global financial markets and prompted warnings from U.S. officials and analysts not to engage in rhetorical slanging matches with North Korea.

Pyongyang said it was "carefully examining" a plan to strike Guam, an island of around 162,000 in the western Pacific and the site of a U.S. military base that hosts a submarine squadron, an airbase and a Coast Guard group.

A Korean People's Army (KPA) spokesman, in a statement carried by state-run KCNA news agency, said the plan would be put into practice at any moment once leader, Mr. Kim, makes a decision.

In another statement citing a different military spokesman, North Korea also accused the United States of devising a "preventive war" and said any plans to execute this would be met with an "all-out war wiping out all the strongholds of enemies, including the U.S. mainland."

With a report from Laura Stone in Ottawa, and Reuters