N-button to hit US is 'on my table', Kim tells N Korea on New Year

01 January 2018

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un boasted in an annual New Year's Day speech today that he had a nuclear button on his desk and that the entire United States was within range of his weapons, though he also promised not to attack unless threatened.

He urged his country to mass-produce nuclear warheads and missiles, suggesting he would continue to accelerate a rogue weapons programme that has stoked international tensions.

Pyongyang dramatically ramped up its efforts to become a nuclear power in 2017, despite a raft of international sanctions and increasingly bellicose rhetoric from the United States.

Kim promised to focus this year on producing nuclear warheads and missiles for operational deployment, adding that the United States could now "never start a war against me or our country".

But he also struck a conciliatory note, opening the door to dialogue with South Korea and saying he would consider sending a delegation to the Winter Olympics to be held in his southern neighbour in February.

"The United States should know that the button for nuclear weapons is on my table," he said during the nationally televised speech, according to a provisional translation by The Associated Press. "The entire area of the US mainland is within our nuclear strike range."

But Kim also said those weapons would not be used unless his country faced aggression.

"This year, we should focus on mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment," Kim said. "These weapons will be used only if our security is threatened."

North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September and launched its most high-tech intercontinental ballistic missile in November, ignoring international condemnation and steadily tightening sanctions.

In typically bellicose language, it declared the latest round of United Nations sanctions imposed last month an "act of war," and Kim said his country had achieved the historic feat of "completing" its nuclear forces.

North Korea's nuclear capabilities do not yet match Kim's boasts, experts say, since it is far from clear it could successfully deliver a nuclear weapon on one of its missiles. Yet there is little doubt its capabilities have advanced significantly in the past year.

But Kim, dressed in a Western-style gray suit and a tie, also offered a potential olive branch to Seoul saying it is imperative to lower military tensions on the Korean Peninsula and improve ties with the South.

He said that the path to dialogue was open and that he would consider sending a delegation to the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

"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, according to a Reuters translation of the speech. "Officials from the two Koreas may urgently meet to discuss the possibility."

South Korea has been trying to reassure the rest of the world that the Olympics will be safe despite the nuclear tensions, and President Moon Jae-in has said North Korea's participation would ensure their safety. He also proposed last month that Seoul and Washington postpone annual joint military drills until after the Olympics, and he generally takes a less confrontational approach to relations with the North than his predecessor, Park Geun-hye.

While Kim's words were more combative towards the United States, he also refrained from a personal attack on President Donald Trump, commentatos noted.

When asked about North Korea's nuclear claims on Sunday night, Trump said only, "We'll see, we'll see."

In the speech, Kim also stressed North Korea's economic achievements and noted the importance of improving the nation's standard of living.

In December the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed new, US-drafted sanctions to restrict oil supplies vital for the impoverished state.

The third raft of sanctions imposed last year, which the North slammed as an "act of war", also received the backing of China - the North's sole major ally and economic lifeline.

But the embargoes have shown little sign of dampening Kim's enthusiasm for his weapons drive.

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