North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said his country was “ready to mobilise” its nuclear deterrent in any military clash with the US and South Korea, state media said on Thursday.
Washington and Seoul have repeatedly warned that Pyongyang is preparing to carry out its seventh nuclear test — a move that the US has warned would provoke a “swift and forceful” response.
In Mr Kim's latest speech to mark the armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War — known as Victory Day in the North — he said the country's armed forces were “thoroughly prepared” for any crisis.
“Our country's nuclear war deterrent is also ready to mobilise its absolute power faithfully, accurately and promptly in accordance with its mission,” Mr Kim said in a speech on Wednesday, according to Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency.
Speaking to war veterans on the 69th anniversary of the armistice in the 1950-1953 Korean War, Mr Kim emphasised the country's “thorough readiness” to “deal with any military clash with the United States”.
His latest threats come as South Korea and the US move to step up joint military exercises, which have always infuriated the North as Pyongyang considers them rehearsals for invasion.
This week, the US military held live-fire drills using its advanced Apache helicopters stationed in the South for the first time since 2019.
Mr Kim also condemned South Korea's new, hawkish president Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May and has promised to take a tougher stance against Pyongyang, which includes a plan to mobilise a pre-emptive strike capability.
“Talking about military action against our nation, which possess absolute weapons that they fear the most, is preposterous and is very dangerous self-destructive action,” Mr Kim said of the Yoon administration, which he branded a group of “gangsters”.
“Such a dangerous attempt will be immediately punished by our powerful strength and the Yoon Suk-yeol government and his military will be annihilated.”
The North has carried out a record run of sanctions-breaking weapons tests this year, including firing an intercontinental ballistic missile at full range for the first time since 2017.
Nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington have been stalled since a summit between Mr Kim and former US president Donald Trump in February 2019 broke down over sanctions relief and what the North would be willing to give up in return.
The Kim regime has since rejected Washington and Seoul's repeated offers to resume talks, claiming the US must first drop its “hostile” policies.
Pyongyang has long struggled to feed its people and its economy has been battered by pandemic-led border closures as well as sanctions over its nuclear programmes.
The country has also been battling a massive outbreak of “fever” after it confirmed its first cases of Covid-19 in May.
“Kim's rhetoric inflates external threats to justify his militarily focused and economically struggling regime,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes are in violation of international law, but Kim tries to depict his destabilising arms build-up as a righteous effort at self-defence.”