North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, ordered his country to be ready to use its nuclear weapons at any time and threatened "stern" actions against new UN sanctions aimed at thwarting the country's nuclear ambitions.
"We will mobilise various means and ways to take strong and merciless actions, including physical means," North Korea said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
Tensions in the region are running high after North Korea fired a volley of short- range missiles into the East Sea in a show of defiance after the UN Security Council's adoption of its toughest ever sanctions against Pyongyang over its fourth nuclear test and rocket launch.
“We sternly reject the UN sanctions as we view them to be the most reckless provocation,” it said.
Mr Kim earlier urged the North Korean military to be in “pre-emptive attack” mode in the face of growing threats from its enemies, and said the North must “bolster its nuclear force both in quality and quantity”, stressing “the need to get the nuclear warheads deployed for national defence always on standby”.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s only significant ally,
, urged the North to abandon its “self-destructive course”.
North Korea is known for sabre-rattling rhetoric after the international community increases sanctions, and has threatened pre-emptive strikes before. Military experts doubt it has yet developed the capability to fire a long-range missile with a miniaturised warhead to deliver a nuclear weapon over long distances, although Seoul is just 50km from the demilitarised zone that marks the buffer between north and south since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
More threats are expected ahead of South Korea’s large- scale military exercises with the US, set to kick off Monday.
China, which fought alongside North Korea in the Korean War and whose aid is keeping the economy there going, is in a tough situation.
One the one hand, it is annoyed that Seoul was due to start talks later on Friday with Washington about deploying the US terminal high altitude area defence, or THAAD, missile defence system in South Korea, as China believes it could also be used against its weapons systems.
But it has been wrongfooted by Pyongyang on its nuclear plans, and backed the sanctions, however reluctantly.
An editorial in the China Daily said: "Judging from its past pattern of reactions, the vengeful Pyongyang may get even more aggressive in its nuclear missile pursuits and threats to use force."
Calling this "self-destructive", the paper, whose views are almost certainly in line with the Beijing leadership, urged Pyongyang to avoid harmful tit-for- tat actions and instead make a new start.
“Pyongyang does not have many options under the new UN resolution. But it does have a very easy way out: Let go of its nuclear missile programme. Sit down and talk,” it said, adding that the international community would not give up until denuclearisation was achieved.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s state media launched insults aimed at South Korea’s president, Park Geun- hye, who this week vowed to end tyranny in North Korea, calling her a “wicked, stupid old woman” and a “psychopath”.