SEOUL • Tensions on the Korean peninsula continued to escalate yesterday with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordering his country to be ready to use its nuclear weapons "at any time".
He also ordered the military to be in "pre-emptive attack" mode in the face of growing threats from its enemies, reported the North's official KCNA news agency.
He made the comments as he supervised military exercises involving newly developed rocket launchers, KCNA reported. It did not mention the date of the drills but said the new weapons had South Korea within range.
On Thursday, North Korea launched several projectiles off its coast into the sea up to 150km away, in an apparent response to new sanctions imposed on the country by the United Nations.
China and Russia yesterday called for calm and restraint from all parties.
"The current situation on the Korean peninsula is highly complex and sensitive," said China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei. "We hope that relevant parties can exercise restraint, speak and act prudently, and refrain from taking actions that may escalate tensions."
Tensions are expected to rise in the coming days, with the United States and South Korea scheduled to kick off their largest-ever joint annual war games on Monday. The exercise will run for over a month.
North Korea has denounced the military exercise as a dress rehearsal for northward invasion.
In another move set to irritate Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington opened talks yesterday on the possible deployment of an advanced US anti-missile defence system in the South. China and Russia also oppose the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, which has powerful radar that can penetrate deep into their countries.
The outcome of the talks could affect Beijing's commitment to enforcing the latest and fifth set of sanctions imposed on North Korea since its first nuclear test in 2006.
The resolution, passed late Wednesday by the UN Security Council, laid out the toughest sanctions imposed on Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons programme to date, and will, if implemented effectively, apply significant economic pressure on Mr Kim's regime.
In its first official reaction to the new sanctions, North Korea yesterday slammed them as "unfair, illicit and immoral", and vowed to keep building its nuclear arsenal.
"The strengthening of our nuclear deterrent is a legitimate exercise of our right to self-defence, which will continue as long as the hostile US policy is in place," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement published by state media.
In a separate statement issued by the government, Pyongyang vowed to take "strong and merciless physical counter-measures".
Such bellicose rhetoric is almost routine for North Korea at times of heightened tensions.
While the North is known to have a small stockpile of nuclear warheads, experts are divided over its ability to mount them on a working missile delivery system.
But analysts said its nuclear test in January and last month's launch of a long-range rocket indicate that the North has made technical advances in its nuclear weapons programme.
The US has dismissed Mr Kim's comments as bluster, saying the North cannot deliver its warheads. A US defence official told Agence France-Presse that "our forces are ready to counter-eliminate strikes if necessary".
In Seoul, President Park Geun Hye promised that South Korea would mete out "stern punishment" in the event of any North Korean provocation, warning of a "fiercer" backlash than usual from Pyongyang.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE