WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump tightened the screws on North Korea Friday, warning Pyongyang would "truly regret" taking any hostile action against the US as he prepared for talks with China's leader on the crisis.
Trump has been engaged all week in a war of words with the North over its weapons and missile programs, as US media reported Pyongyang has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead.
The Republican billionaire has progressively ramped up the tone throughout the week and on Friday declared that the US military is "locked and loaded."
He had earlier brandished a threat of unleashing "fire and fury" on Pyongyang, then noted Thursday maybe that statement "wasn't tough enough."
But Trump also appeared to be open to diplomacy, saying he would speak on the phone Friday night with Xi Jinping, the president of China -- isolated North Korea's giant neighbor and closest ally.
"We have been working very closely with China and with other countries," Trump said.
"Nobody loves a peaceful solution better than President Trump," he said.
The North's official KCNA news service in an editorial accused Trump of "driving the situation on the Korean peninsula to the brink of a nuclear war," calling the US "the heinous nuclear war fanatic."
The saber-rattling has sparked worldwide concerns that a miscalculation by either side could trigger a catastrophic conflict on the Korean peninsula.
China, Russia and Germany have urged both sides to tone down the rhetoric.
"Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!" Trump wrote Friday from his golf club retreat in New Jersey, where he is on a working vacation.
Later in the day, he lashed out at Pyongyang's plans to launch missiles towards the US Pacific territory of Guam, urging Kim to heed his warnings.
"If he does anything with respect to Guam or anyplace else that's an American territory or an American ally, he will truly regret it, and he will regret it fast."
China also urged Trump and Kim to avoid any further escalation.
"We call on the relevant parties to be cautious with their words and actions, and contribute more toward easing tensions and enhancing mutual trust," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement.
Beijing has repeatedly pushed resuming long-dormant six-party talks to peacefully resolve the mounting tensions, but its position has been overshadowed by Trump and Kim's emerging game of brinkmanship.
Trump has called on China to "do a lot more" to heap pressure on Kim.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was "very alarmed" at Trump's tough talk, and said Washington should take the first step toward cooling tensions.
"When a fight has nearly broken out, the first step away from the dangerous threshold should be taken by the side that is stronger and smarter," Lavrov said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined the intensifying chorus of calls for restraint, saying diplomacy was the answer.
"Germany will very intensively take part in the options for resolution that are not military but I consider a verbal escalation to be the wrong response," she said.
Nearly a week ago, the UN Security Council unanimously passed fresh sanctions against Pyongyang over its weapons program, including export bans, a new punishment that could cost North Korea $1 billion a year.
"This is clearly a time for all the parties to focus on how to de-escalate and lower the tensions," said the spokesman for United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Stephane Dujarric.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula tend to increase when Seoul and Washington launch major military joint exercises, and the next, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, is set to kick off around August 21.
'Tragedy of war'
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis appeared intent Thursday on easing the tension, describing the prospect of war as "catastrophic" and saying diplomacy remained the priority.
Asked Friday if Mattis was aware of Trump's latest tweet, spokesman Colonel Rob Manning simply said the Pentagon chief was "in close and constant contact with the president."
A White House official noted: "There are military plans for just about any crisis we may face in the world. (...) This isn't anything new."
In China, the state-run Global Times said Friday that Beijing should "stay neutral" and not intervene on Pyongyang's side if it triggered a conflict.
Meanwhile in South Korea, calls mounted for Seoul to develop atomic weapons of its own, with the Korea Herald saying in an editorial: "Now is time to start reviewing nuclear armament."
'Bereft of reason'
Relations between Washington and Pyongyang have been tense for months, in the wake of the North's repeated missile tests, including two successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test launches in July that are believed to have brought much of the US mainland within range.
North Korea raised hackles in the United States when it announced a detailed plan to send four missiles over Japan and towards Guam, an island territory of some 165,000 people, where some 6,000 US soldiers are based.
Pyongyang said the scheme to target the island, a key US military outpost in the western Pacific, was intended to "signal a crucial warning" as "only absolute force" would have an effect on a US leader "bereft of reason."
The tough talk caused global markets to plunge this week, with stocks in the red again Friday in Asia and much of Europe.