The Trump administration said it's not seeking to overthrow North Korea's government after the president tweeted that Kim Jong Un "won't be around much longer" and called Pyongyang's assertion absurd that Donald Trump's comment amounted to a declaration of war.
Still, the fiery rhetoric carrying over from a week of threatening exchanges at the UN General Assembly only further fuelled fears the adversaries might stumble back into open military conflict.
The Korean War ended seven decades ago without a formal peace treaty and tensions related to the North's nuclear advances have escalated for months.
At the UN on Monday, the North's top diplomat, Ri Yong Ho, argued that Trump's Twitter blast gives it the right to shoot down US warplanes, like the strategic bombers Washington flew close to the border between the two Koreas over the weekend.
Trump's Saturday tweet said: "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!" Trump also used "rocket man" for Kim in his speech to the UN General Assembly last week.
While the comments may be read as an implicit threat to eliminate Kim, administration officials said Washington hadn't changed its policy and the US isn't seeking regime change in Pyongyang.
"We have not declared war on North Korea. Frankly the suggestion of that is absurd," White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters.
"It's never appropriate for a country to shoot down another country's aircraft when it's over international waters."
"Our goal is still the same. We continue to seek the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," she said.
Cabinet officials, particularly Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have insisted the US-led campaign of diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea is focused on eliminating the pariah state's nuclear weapons program, not its totalitarian government.