SEOUL/WASHINGTON • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has vowed to develop more nuclear weapons and make his nation "the strongest nuclear power and military power in the world".
His comments on Tuesday came on the same day that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said his country was ready to talk to North Korea "without preconditions", backing away from his former insistence that Pyongyang accept in principle to disarm.
Pyongyang's most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-15, has been largely perceived by analysts and government officials to have a range that can reach all of the mainland United States.
However, experts believe North Korea still has some technical points it needs to improve before fully completing its goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile that can hit the entirety of the US.
Mr Kim said on Tuesday that the scientists and workers would continue manufacturing "more latest weapons and equipment" to "bolster the nuclear force in quality and quantity", the North's central news agency reported yesterday.
The North Korean leader was speaking at the close of a rare two-day munitions conference to celebrate the Hwasong-15, which was test-launched on Nov 29. Mr Kim also said North Korea should develop and manufacture more diverse weapons.
He personally awarded medals to "those in the field of defence science who most faithfully and perfectly carried out the Party's plan for building a strategic nuclear force, successfully test-fired ICBM Hwasong-15, and thus demonstrated the dignity and might of our powerful state all over the world once again", Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.
It did not name the recipients.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Mr Tillerson, who has overseen a global diplomatic effort to isolate Pyongyang and stifle its economy through United Nations sanctions and, ultimately, the threat of US military force, stressed the importance of a negotiated end to the stand-off.
"We're ready to have the first meeting without preconditions," Mr Tillerson told a meeting of the Atlantic Council policy forum, speaking of the possibility of laying out a road map of goals.
"It's not realistic to say we're only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your programme. They have too much invested in it."
But Mr Tillerson warned that these efforts would continue until "the first bomb drops" and that Washington "simply cannot accept a nuclear-armed North Korea".
Both the US and North Korean leaders have a penchant for war-like rhetoric and personal invective that risks plunging East Asia into a devastating conflict that could leave millions dead.
US President Donald Trump habitually refers to Mr Kim as "Little Rocket Man" and has threatened to utterly destroy his regime with "fire and fury".
North Korea, meanwhile, has branded Mr Trump a mentally disturbed "dotard".
A senior UN official returning from Pyongyang said North Korean officials had told him it was important to prevent war but offered no concrete proposal for talks.
"They agreed that it was important to prevent war," Mr Jeffrey Feltman, the UN's political affairs chief, told reporters after briefing the Security Council on his trip.
Mr Feltman met North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Vice-Foreign Minister Pak Myong Kuk during his visit to Pyongyang over the weekend - the first by a high-ranking UN official since 2011.
China and Russia responded positively to Mr Tillerson's remarks, even after the White House appeared to put his proposal in question by saying that Mr Trump's "views on North Korea have not changed".
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China took note of Mr Tillerson's remarks and expressed hope that the United States and North Korea take "meaningful steps towards dialogue and contact".
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists: "We can state that such constructive statements impress us far more than the confrontational rhetoric that we have heard up to now. Undoubtedly this can be welcomed."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE