TOKYO/UNITED NATIONS (REUTERS) - The United States is not ruling out the eventual possibility of direct talks with North Korea, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said on Tuesday (Oct 17), hours after Pyongyang warned that nuclear war might break out at any moment.
Talks between the adversaries have long been urged by China in particular, but Washington and its ally Japan have been reluctant to sit down at the table while Pyongyang continues to pursue a goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States.
"Eventually, we don't rule out the possibility of course of direct talks," Mr Sullivan said in Tokyo after talks with his Japanese counterpart.
"Our focus is on diplomacy to solve this problem that is presented by the DPRK. We must, however, with our allies, Japan and South Korea and elsewhere, be prepared for the worst, should diplomacy fail," he said, using North Korea's formal name of Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Tension has soared following a series of weapons tests by North Korea and a string of increasingly bellicose exchanges between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Leaflets apparently from North Korea calling Mr Trump a "mad dog" and depicting gruesome images of him have turned up across central Seoul, adding an unusually personal element to North Korean propaganda.
"The situation on the Korean peninsula where the attention of the whole world is focused has reached the touch-and-go point and a nuclear war may break out any moment," North Korea's Deputy UN Ambassador Kim In Ryong told a UN General Assembly committee on Monday.
"As long as one does not take part in the US military actions against the DPRK, we have no intention to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any other country," according to Mr Kim In Ryong's prepared remarks for the discussion on nuclear weapons. He did not read that section out loud.
South Korea and the US began week-long joint Navy drills in the waters around the Korean peninsula on Monday, involving about 40 ships from both militaries, including the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, the South's Defence Ministry said.
The North's state media said on Tuesday that the allies' "desperate efforts" to block the advance of the country would only vindicate that it should continue its nuclear programme "to the last".
"The DPRK has been fully ready for all the US is resorting to, including sanctions, pressure and military option, as it has the tremendous nuclear force for self-defence and irresistible strength of self-reliance and self-development," the official KCNA news agency said in a commentary.
Asked about the North Korean envoy's warning of nuclear war, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said it would not be in anyone's interest.
"China still hopes that all parties, in this situation where things on the Korean peninsula are highly complex and sensitive, can exercise restraint and do more to benefit the lowering of tensions in the region", Mr Lu told a daily news briefing.
The UN Security Council has unanimously ratcheted up sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes since 2006.
The most recent UN sanctions banned exports of coal, iron ore and seafood, aimed at cutting off a third of the North's total annual exports of US$3 billion (S$4 billion).
Experts say North Korea has been scrambling to find alternative sources of hard currency to keep its economy afloat and advance its weapons programme.
North Korea's Lazarus hacking group was probably responsible for a recent cyber heist in Taiwan, cyber-security firm BAE Systems said on Monday.
Taiwan's Central News Agency said last week that hackers had sought to steal some US$60 million from the Far Eastern Bank, but it had recovered all but US$500,000.
BAE Systems and other cyber firms have previously linked Lazarus to last year's US$81-million cyber heist at Bangladesh's central bank.
North Korea has also recently allowed citizens as young as 12 to bet on horse races for the first time, state news agency KCNA reported.
Punters had previously risked three years' hard labour for gambling in the reclusive and tightly controlled state, but the growing importance of private markets meant more people had money to spend on leisure, experts said.
"You may have ridiculed Kim Jong Un for constructing lavish facilities while struggling to feed the people, but those things are to make foreign currency, not from foreigners, but from the well-off inside North Korea, because you have to pay in US dollars or Chinese renminbi there," said researcher Lee Sang Keun at the Institute of Unification Studies of Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
"Many North Koreans make lots of money from the market, dine at hamburger restaurants and go shopping, all of which help fatten regime coffers. That's part of the reason why the regime still has some financial latitude, despite international sanctions."