SEOUL: Fresh off an immense North Korean parade that revealed an arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles, rival South Korea and its allies are bracing for the possibility that Pyongyang's follow-up act will be even bigger.
North Korea often marks significant dates by displaying military capability, and South Korean officials say there's a chance the country will conduct its sixth nuclear test or its maiden test launch of an ICBM around the founding anniversary of its military on Tuesday.
Such moves could test the developing North Korea policies of President Donald Trump, who has reportedly settled on a strategy that emphasises increasing pressure on Pyongyang with the help of China, North Korea's only major ally, instead of military options or trying to overthrow the North's government.
Recent US commercial satellite images indicate increased activity around North Korea's nuclear test site, and third- generation dictator Kim Jong Un has said that the country's preparation for an ICBM launch is in its "final stage."
Seoul's Defense Ministry has said the North appears ready to conduct such "strategic provocations" at any time. South Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, the country's acting leader in place of ousted President Park Geun-hye, who has been arrested over corruption allegations, has instructed his military to strengthen its "immediate response posture" in case the North does something significant on the April 25 anniversary.
There's also a possibility that North Korea, facing potential changes in regional dynamics as Washington presses Beijing to pressure Pyongyang more aggressively, opts to mark the anniversary with a missile launch of lesser magnitude.
North Korea separately fired what US officials said were a Scud-type missile and a midrange missile earlier this month, but the launches were analysed as failures. While Trump has dispatched what he called an "armada" of ships to the region, including an aircraft carrier, US officials have told The Associated Press that the administration doesn't intend to militarily respond to a North Korean nuclear or missile test.
In a statement released late Friday, North Korea's Foreign Ministry accused Trump of driving the region into an "extremely dangerous phase" with his sending of the aircraft carrier and said the North was ready to stand up against any kind of threated posed by the United States.
With a typical rhetorical flourish, the ministry said North Korea "will react to a total war with an all-out war, a nuclear war with nuclear strikes of its own style and surely win a victory in the death-defying struggle against the US imperialists."
Under the watch of Kim, North Korea has been aggressively pursuing a decades-long goal of putting a nuclear warhead on an ICBM capable of reaching the US mainland.
North Korea conducted two nuclear tests last year alone, which would have improved its knowledge on making nuclear weapons small enough to fit on long-range missiles. It also last year launched a long-range rocket that delivered a satellite into orbit, which Washington, Seoul and others saw as a banned test of missile technology.