North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the country has miniaturised nuclear warheads to mount on ballistic missiles and ordered improvements in the power and precision of its arsenal, state media reported on Wednesday.
Kim has called for his military to be prepared to mount pre-emptive attacks against the United States and South Korea and stand ready to use nuclear weapons, stepping up belligerent rhetoric after coming under new U.N. and bilateral sanctions for its nuclear and rocket tests.
U.S. and South Korean troops began large-scale military drills this week, which the North called "nuclear war moves" and threatened to respond with an all-out offensive.
Kim's comments, released on Wednesday, were his first direct mention of the claim, made repeatedly in state media, to have successfully miniaturised a nuclear warhead, which has been widely questioned and never independently verified.
"The nuclear warheads have been standardised to be fit for ballistic missiles by miniaturising them," KCNA quoted Kim as saying as he inspected the work of nuclear scientists, adding "this can be called a true nuclear deterrent".
"He stressed the importance of building ever more powerful, precision and miniaturised nuclear weapons and their delivery means," KCNA said.
Kim also inspected the nuclear warhead designed for thermo-nuclear reaction, KCNA said, referring to a miniaturised hydrogen bomb that the country said it tested on Jan. 6.
Rodong Sinmun, official daily of the North's ruling party, carried pictures of Kim in what seemed to be a large hangar speaking to aides standing in front of a silver spherical object.
They also showed a large object similar to the KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) previously put on display at military parades, with Kim holding a half-smoked cigarette in one of the images.
South Korea's defence ministry said after the release of the images that it did not believe the North has successfully miniaturised a nuclear warhead or deployed a functioning ICBM.
That assessment is in line with the views of South Korean and U.S. officials that the North has likely made some advances in trying to put a nuclear warhead on a missile, but that there is no proof it has mastered the technology.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking by telephone to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, described the situation on the Korean peninsula as "very tense" and called for all parties be remain calm and exercise restraint, China's foreign ministry said.
North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6 claiming to have set off a miniaturised hydrogen bomb, which was disputed by many experts and the governments of South Korea and the United States. The blast detected from the test was simply too small to back up the claim, experts said at the time.
The U.N. Security Council imposed harsh new sanctions on the isolated state last week for the nuclear test. It launched a long-range rocket in February drawing international criticism and sanctions from its rival, South Korea.
South Korea on Tuesday announced further measures aimed at isolating the North by blacklisting individuals and entities that it said were linked to Pyongyang's weapons programme.
China also stepped up pressure on the North by barring one of the 31 ships on its transport ministry's blacklist.
But a U.N. panel set up to monitor sanctions under an earlier Security Council resolution adopted in 2009 said in a report released on Tuesday that it had "serious questions about the efficacy of the current U.N. sanctions regime."
North Korea has been "effective in evading sanctions" by continuing to engage in banned trade, "facilitated by the low level of implementation of Security Council resolutions by Member States," the Panel of Experts said.
"The reasons are diverse, but include lack of political will, inadequate enabling legislation, lack of understanding of the resolutions and low prioritisation," it said.