President Donald Trump has said the US military is “locked and loaded” to deal with North Korea.
His comments on Twitter came as US officials confirmed that they were planning to move ahead with large-scale US-South Korea exercises later this month.
North Korea, now finalising plans to launch a salvo of missiles toward Guam, claims the exercises are a rehearsal for war.
The exercises are an annual event, but come as Pyongyang says it is readying a plan to fire off four Hwasong-12 missiles toward the tiny island, which is US territory and a major military hub.
The plan would be sent to leader Kim Jong Un for approval just before or as the US-South Korea drills begin.
Called Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, the exercises are expected to run from 21-31 August and involve tens of thousands of American and South Korean troops on the ground and in the sea and air.
Washington and Seoul say the exercises are defensive in nature and crucial to maintaining a deterrent against North Korean aggression.
The exercises were scheduled well before tensions began to rise over President Donald Trump’s increasingly fiery rhetoric and North Korea’s announcement of the missile plan, which, if carried out, would be its most provocative launch yet. Along with a bigger set of manoeuvres held every Spring, the exercises are routinely met by strong condemnation and threats of countermeasures from North Korea.
Trump tweeted: “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path.”
While tensions typically spike around the dates of the exercises - North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test just days after last year’s manoeuvres - the situation generally calms afterward as the North needs to focus on its farms and the approach of the fall harvest.
The heightened military activity on the peninsula this time is a concern because it could increase the possibility of a mishap or an overreaction by either side that could spin into a more serious escalation.
North Korea has been increasingly sensitive to the exercises lately because they reportedly include training for “decapitation strikes” to kill Kim Jong Un and his top lieutenants.
Pyongyang is also switching its propaganda machine into high gear by bringing in a large number of foreign journalists to ensure it gets global attention for an event due to be held next week in honour of its ruling Kim family on Mount Paektu, a dormant volcano that straddles the Chinese border and is something of a spiritual home for the regime.
Defence officials in Seoul confirmed on Friday that the exercises were expected to begin without any delays, but refused to provide further details.
According to the US Department of Defence, Ulchi-Freedom Guardian involves about 40,000 troops, as well as civilian South Korean government personnel who train their civil defence responses.