North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un has ordered an imminent nuclear warhead explosion test and multiple ballistic missile launches, escalating Pyongyang's faceoff with the international community just days after being slapped with tough UN sanctions.
The order came after Kim monitored what was described as the successful simulated test of the warhead re-entry technology required for a long-range nuclear strike on the US mainland, the North's official KCNA news agency said today.
Military tensions have been soaring on the divided Korean peninsula ever since the North carried out its fourth nuclear test on 6 January, followed a month later by a long-range rocket launch that was widely seen as a disguised ballistic missile test.
The UN Security Council responded earlier this month by imposing its toughest sanctions on North Korea to date, targeting key economic sectors and seeking to undermine the North's use of and access to international transport systems.
Pyongyang, meanwhile, has maintained a daily barrage of nuclear strike threats against both Seoul and Washington, ostensibly over ongoing, large-scale South Korea-US military drills that the North sees as provocative rehearsals for invasion.
In order to boost the reliability of the nation's nuclear deterrent still further, Kim said a nuclear warhead explosion test and firings of "several kinds" of ballistic rockets would be carried out "in a short time".
"He instructed the relevant section to make pre-arrangement for them to the last detail," KCNA said.
The order came days after state media released photos of Kim posing with what was claimed to be a miniaturised nuclear warhead capable of fitting on a ballistic missile.
Self-destruction, says Seoul
Meeting with her cabinet ministers today, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye said North Korea's endless threats reflected a "sense of crisis" in Pyongyang at its increasing diplomatic and economic isolation.
"If North Korea continues its provocations and confrontation with the international community and does not walk the path of change, it will walk the path of self-destruction," Park said.
While North Korea is known to have a small stockpile of nuclear weapons, its ability to deliver them accurately to a chosen target on a ballistic missile has been a subject of heated debate.
There are numerous question marks over the North's weapons delivery systems, with many experts believing it is still years from developing a working inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could strike continental United States.
Others have doubted whether any miniaturised device the North has designed so far would be robust enough to survive the shock, vibration and temperature change associated with ballistic flight.
Today's KCNA report was accompanied by photos of Kim personally monitoring a test simulating the intense heat a nuclear warhead would experience during atmospheric re-entry.
The pictures showed a nose cone being blasted by a high-pressure jet of flames from a device housed in a tower of scaffolding.
Protected by "newly developed heat-resisting material", the warhead was reportedly subjected to thermal flows five times hotter than those associated with ICBM flight.
The test was a complete success, the agency said, and provided a "sure guarantee" of the warhead's ability to withstand re-entry -- a major step in the North's push towards a genuine ICBM nuclear strike capability.
South Korea's defence ministry said it was sceptical of the claim.
"According to our military analysis, North Korea has not yet secured re-entry technology," ministry spokesman Moon Sang-Gyun told reporters.
North Korea has never tested an ICBM, although it has displayed such a missile, known as the KN-08, during recent mass military parades in Pyongyang.
"I suspect we may finally see a KN-08 test - a test of its re-entry vehicle without a nuclear warhead," said Melissa Hanham, an expert on North Korea's WMD programme at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California.
"However, I worry that if we keep doubting North Korea's capabilities, they will feel they have to prove them in the future," Hanham said.
China tested a medium-range ballistic missile with a 12-kiloton nuclear warhead in 1996, the only time a country has flight-tested a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile over populated areas.
"I don't know how North Korea's neighbours could distinguish testing a nuclear-tipped KN-08 from an attack. It would be very dangerous, very destabilising," Hanham said.