North Korean envoy says nuclear war could break out at 'any moment'

Pyongyang said it wants a nuclear-free world, but a nuclear war might still start due to an "extreme and direct" US threat. Washington has separately hinted that it could be open to direct talks with the pariah regime.

The situation on the Korean Peninsula "has reached a touch-and-go-point and nuclear war may break out at any moment," North Korean Deputy Ambassador Kim In Ryong told the UN General Assembly's disarmament committee on Monday.

"The entire US mainland is within our firing range and if the US dares to invade our sacred territory even an inch it will not escape our severe punishment in any part of the globe," he said.

While North Korea routinely exaggerates both the power and range of its nuclear arsenal, the isolated state has performed six nuclear tests since 2006 and its ballistic missiles are believed to be capable of reaching the US territory of Guam.

International efforts by the US, the EU, Russia and Pyongyang's closest ally China have yielded no progress in halting the country's nuclear arms program.

Read more: North Korea 'hacked US-South Korea war plans'

Kim In Ryong on Monday said that his country supports "the total elimination of nuclear weapons" globally.

But for as long as the US "constantly threatens and blackmails [Pyongyang] with nuclear weapons," North Korea cannot disarm, he said, addying that "no country in the world has been subjected to such an extreme and direct nuclear threat from the US for such a long time."

Trump's Twitter fallout

Kim In Ryong's remarks follows a statement by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in which he said that diplomatic efforts to diffuse the standoff between Pyongyang and Washington would continue "until the first bomb drops."

Read more: Can Jimmy Carter bring peace to the Korean Peninsula?

While Tillerson has been pushing for a diplomatic solution, other US officials appear to be taking a harder line. US President Donald Trump pledged in August to respond to North Korean threats with "fire and fury."

He later appeared to undermine Tillerson on Twitter after he wrote that the secretary of state was "wasting his time" by negotiating with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. "Save your energy, Rex, we'll do what has to be done," he added.

'Direct talks' or preparing for the worst?

On Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan hinted at the possibility of direct talks between North Korea and the US after a meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Shinsuke Sugiyama, in Tokyo.

While other countries including China have repeatedly called for talks, the US and Japan have been reluctant to negotiate as Pyongyang continues to pursue its nuclear and ballistic programs.

Sullivan said that the US is focusing on diplomacy to resolve the crisis. "Eventually, we don't rule out the possibility of course of direct talks," Sullivan said after meeting his Japanese counterpart in Tokyo.

"We must, however, with our allies, Japan and South Korea and elsewhere, be prepared for the worst should diplomacy fail," he said.

Sugiyama told reporters that Japan supported keeping all options open and the need for the US, Japan, and South Korea to work together on a diplomatic solution.

amp, dj/se (AP, dpa, Reuters)

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Major achievement

In early June 2017, North Korea test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time. Testing an ICBM marked a major military achievement for Pyongyang and a serious escalation of tensions with the United States and its allies in the region, particularly South Korea and Japan.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Trouble with warheads

At the time, defense experts said the ICBM could reach as far as the US states of Alaska and Hawaii. However, it was unclear if North Korea can field an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead on its cone that could survive reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. North Korean state media claimed the ICBM was capable of carrying a "large, heavy nuclear warhead" to any part of the United States.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Pyongyang's nuclear tests - six times and counting

The ICBM is believed to be a step forward in the North's nuclear program. Despite pressure from the international community, Pyongyang has made no secret of its nuclear ambitions. Alongside its ritual ballistic missile tests, North Korea has conducted nuclear tests on at least six occasions, including one in September 2017.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

US running out of patience?

Responding to the first ICBM test with a show of force, the US and South Korean troops on conducted "deep strike" precision missile drills using Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and the Republic of Korea's Hyunmoo Missile II. In April, the US sent its Carl Vinson aircraft carrier towards the Korean Peninsula, saying it was taking prudent measures against the North.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Testing the boundaries

Ignoring international condemnation, Pyongyang test-launched another rocket on July 28, 2017, just weeks after its first ICBM test. In both of the tests, North Korea used Hwasong-14 missile, but the second one reached a higher altitude and traveled a larger distance than the first one, according to the state media.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Whole of US within range?

Pyongyang conducted its third test November 29, using a newly developed Hwasong-15 missile. US, Japanese and South Korean officials said it rose to about 4,500 km (2,800 miles) and flew 960 kilometers (600 miles) over about 50 minutes before landing in Japan's exclusive economic zone off the country's coast.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

One of the world's largest militaries

Apart from a developing missile and nuclear program, North Korea has a powerful army with 700,000 active troops and another 4.5 million in the reserves. It can call upon almost a quarter of its population to serve in the army at any given time. The North's bloated army is believed to outnumber its southern neighbor's by two-to-one.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Vast capabilities

According to the 2017 Global Firepower Index, the North has, as part of a far-reaching arsenal, 458 fighter aircraft, 5,025 combat tanks, 76 submarines, and 5,200,000 total military personnel. The picture above from 2013 shows leader Kim Jong Un ordering strategic rocket forces to be on standby to strike US and South Korean targets at any time.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Enemies all around

Alongside the United States, Pyongyang views its neighbors South Korea and Japan as its two other main enemies. North Korea has used US military exercises in the region as means of galvanizing its people, claiming that the exercises are dress rehearsals for an impending invasion.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Huge, colorful demonstrations of military might

Every year, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and citizens roll through the streets of the capital Pyongyang to take part in the North's military parades. Preparations for the rallies often begin months in advance, and the parades usually mark important anniversaries linked with the Communist Party or Kim Jong Un's family.