North Korean leader Kim Jong Un says his country has developed the ability to hit all of the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons and that the nuclear button is “on my table.”
"The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons and a nuclear button is always on my desk. This is reality, not a threat," Kim said in a televised New Year’s Day address on January 1.
He said the country had “completed” the process of becoming a nuclear power and that "we must mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles and speed up their deployment."
He added, though, that it would only use such weapons if its security were threatened.
Most international experts do not believe that North Korea has yet developed a missile that could deliver a nuclear weapon the distance required to reach North America.
The mercurial Kim did offer some conciliatory language to its South Korean neighbor and rival, saying the “path is open” to dialogue with an aim to improve ties between Pyongyang and Seoul.
"When it comes to North-South relations, we should lower the military tensions on the Korean Peninsula to create a peaceful environment," Kim said. "Both the North and the South should make efforts."
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on January 2 that any improvement in relations between North and South Korea would involve finding a resolution to Pyongyang's nuclear program.
Kim also said he is considering sending a North Korean team to compete in the Winter Olympics scheduled for February 9-25 in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang.
"North Korea's participation in the Winter Games will be a good opportunity to show unity of the people, and we wish the games will be a success," he said.
After Kim's comments, Moon ordered South Korea's Unification and Sport ministries to create measures that would allow North Korea to take part in the Olympic games.
South Korea is a major ally of the United States, which has thousands of troops stationed in the South.
The United States and North Korea have been in a war of words that has intensified each time Pyongyang has tested its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons in violation of United Nations resolutions.
In September in a speech at the UN, U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to “totally destroy” North Korea if it continues to threaten the U.S. and its allies with its actions.
The United States has also been the leading force behind the imposition of tougher financial sanctions against North Korea, a move Pyongyang has called "an act of war."
Mike Mullen, an admiral and former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC TV's This Week program on December 31 that the United States is "closer to a nuclear war with North Korea" than ever before, given the extreme rhetoric from both nations' leaders.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP