North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned he is ready to use his nuclear weapons in potential military conflicts with the United States and South Korea, blaming Pyongyang's rivals for what he said was pushing the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war.
"Our armed forces are completely prepared to respond to any crisis, and our country's nuclear war deterrent is also ready to mobilise its absolute power dutifully, exactly and swiftly in accordance with its mission," Kim said in Wednesday's speech to war veterans on the 69th anniversary of the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Kim's speech aimed to boost internal unity in the impoverished country amid pandemic-related economic difficulties.
While Kim has increasingly threatened his rivals with nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that he would use them first against the superior militaries of the US and its allies, observers say.
Supreme Leader Kim also used the opportunity to accuse the US of "demonising" North Korea to justify its hostile policies.
He said US-South Korea military drills targeting North Korea show the western country's "double standards" and "gangster-like" aspects because it brands Pyongyang's routine military activities — an apparent reference to its missile tests — as provocations or threats.
US-South Korean military alliance 'suicidal action'
Kim also alleged the new South Korean government of President Yoon Suk Yeol is led by "confrontation maniacs" and "gangsters" who have gone further than previous South Korean conservative governments.
Since taking office in May, the Yoon government has moved to strengthen Seoul's military alliance with the United States and bolster its capacity to neutralise North Korean nuclear threats, including a preemptive strike capability.
"Talking about military action against our nation, which possesses absolute weapons that they fear the most, is preposterous and is very dangerous suicidal action," Kim said.
"Such a dangerous attempt will be immediately punished by our powerful strength, and the Yoon Suk Yeol government and his military will be annihilated."
Moon Hong-Sik, a deputy spokesperson at the South Korean Defense Ministry, reiterated on Thursday an earlier position that Seoul has been boosting its military capacity and joint defence posture with the US to cope with escalating nuclear threats from Pyongyang. South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said the military maintains a firm readiness.
In April, Kim said North Korea could preemptively use nuclear weapons if threatened, saying they would "never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent."
Kim's military also has test-launched nuclear-capable missiles that place both the US mainland and South Korea within striking distance. US and South Korean officials have repeatedly said in the past few months that North Korea is ready to conduct its first nuclear test in five years.
Sanctions, mismanagement and covid
Kim is seeking greater public support as his country's economy has been battered by pandemic-related border shutdowns, US-led sanctions and own mismanagement.
In May, North Korea also admitted to its first COVID-19 outbreak, though the scale of illness and death is widely disputed in a country that lacks the modern medical capacity to handle it.
"Kim's rhetoric inflates external threats to justify his militarily focused and economically struggling regime," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
"North Korea's nuclear and missile programs are in violation of international law, but Kim tries to depict his destabilising arms buildup as a righteous effort at self-defence."
Experts say North Korea will likely intensify its threats against the United States and South Korea as the allies prepare to expand summertime exercises.
In recent years, the South Korean and US militaries have cancelled or downsized some of their regular exercises due to concerns about COVID-19 and to support now-stalled US-led diplomacy aimed at convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear program in return for economic and political benefits.
During Wednesday's speech, Kim said his government recently set tasks to improve its military capability more speedily to respond to military pressure campaigns by its enemies, suggesting that he intends to go ahead with an expected nuclear test.
But Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said North Korea would not likely conduct its nuclear test before China -- its principal ally and biggest aid benefactor -- holds its Communist Party convention in the autumn.
He said China worries that a North Korean nuclear test could give the US a justification to boost its security partnerships with its allies that it could use to check Chinese influence in the region.
North Korea recently said it is moving to overcome the COVID-19 outbreak amid plummeting fever cases. Still, experts say it is unclear if the country can lift its strict restrictions soon because it could face a viral resurgence later this year.
During Wednesday's event, Kim, veterans and others did not wear masks, state media photos showed. On Thursday, North Korea reported 11 fever cases, a massive drop from the peak of about 400,000 a day in May.
North Korea has rejected US and South Korean offers for medical relief items. It has also said it would not return to talks with Washington unless it first abandons its hostile policies on the North, in an apparent reference to the sanctions and US-South Korean military drills.