North Korea warns 'thermonuclear war may break out at any moment'

A senior North Korean official has accused the US of turning the Korean peninsula into “the world’s biggest hotspot” and creating “a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment”.

North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador, Kim In-ryong, described US-South Korean military exercises as the largest ever “aggressive war drill” and said his country was “ready to react to any mode of war desired by the US”.

The country’s deputy foreign minister, Han Song-Ryol, told the BBC that Pyongyang would continue to test missiles “on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis”. 

All-out war would ensue if the US took military action, he said..

The statements from the North Korean officials came as the US president, Donald Trump, told the government in Pyongyang that it has “gotta behave” and his vice-president, Mike Pence, said the “era of strategic patience is over”.

Pence’s visit to the tense demilitarised zone dividing North and South Korea came at the start of a 10-day trip to Asia and underscored US commitment to the region.

As the vice-president was briefed near the demarcation line, two North Korean soldiers watched from a short distance away, one taking photographs of the American visitor.

Pence told reporters Trump was hopeful China would use its “extraordinary levers” to pressure Pyongyang to abandon its weapons programme. 

But the vice-president expressed impatience with the unwillingness of North Korea to rid itself of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Pointing to the quarter-century since the US first confronted North Korea over its attempts to build nuclear weapons, he said a period of patience had followed.

“But the era of strategic patience is over,” Pence said. 

“President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change. 

We want to see North Korea abandon its reckless path of the development of nuclear weapons – and also its continual use and testing of ballistic missiles is unacceptable.”

Trump appeared to reinforce the message at the White House, replying “gotta behave” when a CNN reporter asked what message he had for the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

In Moscow, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, told reporters on Monday that he hoped there would be “no unilateral actions like those we saw recently in Syria and that the US will follow the line that President Trump repeatedly voiced during the election campaign”.

Meanwhile, China made a plea for a return to negotiations. 

The foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said tensions need to be eased on the Korean peninsula to bring the escalating dispute there to a peaceful resolution. 

Lu said Beijing wanted to resume the multi-party negotiations that ended in stalemate in 2009 and suggested that US plans to deploy a missile defence system in South Korea were damaging its relations with China.

Late on Monday, Pence reiterated in a joint statement alongside South Korea’s acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, that “all options are on the table” and said any use of nuclear weapons by Pyongyang would be met with “an overwhelming and effective response”. 

He said the American commitment to South Korea was “iron-clad and immutable”.

Noting Trump’s recent military actions in Syria and Afghanistan, Pence said North Korea “would do well not to test his resolve” or the resolve of US armed forces in the region.

The vice-president earlier visited Camp Bonifas, a military installation near the DMZ, for a briefing with military leaders. 

Pence stood a few metres from the military demarcation line outside Freedom House, gazing at the North Korean soldiers across the border, and then peered at a deforested stretch of North Korea from a lookout post in the hillside.

In Tokyo, the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said: “Needless to say, diplomatic effort is important to maintain peace. 

But dialogue for the sake of having dialogue is meaningless.”

Urging China and Russia to play more constructive roles, he added: “We need to apply pressure on North Korea so they seriously respond to a dialogue [with the international community].”

Pence’s visit came amid increasing tensions and heated rhetoric on the Korean peninsula. 

The spectre of a potential nuclear test and an escalated US response has trailed Pence on his Asian tour. 

The Trump administration is hoping that China will help rein in North Korea in exchange for other considerations.

Last week, Trump said he would not declare China a currency manipulator – pulling back from a campaign promise – as he looked for help from Beijing, North Korea’s dominant trade partner.