The U.S. is prepared to launch a preemptive strike with conventional weapons against North Korea should officials become convinced that North Korea is about to follow through with a nuclear weapons test, multiple senior U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News.
North Korea has warned that a "big event" is near, and U.S. officials say signs point to a nuclear test that could come as early as this weekend.
The intelligence officials told NBC News that the U.S. has positioned two destroyers capable of shooting Tomahawk cruise missiles in the region, one just 300 miles from the North Korean nuclear test site.
American heavy bombers are also positioned in Guam to attack North Koreashould it be necessary, and earlier this week, the Pentagon announced that the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group was being diverted to the area.
The U.S. strike could include missiles and bombs, cyber and special operations on the ground.
The danger of such an attack by the U.S. is that it could provoke the volatile and unpredictable North Korean regime to launch its own blistering attack on its southern neighbor.
On Wednesday, North Korea said it would "hit the U.S. first" with a nuclear weapon should there be any signs of U.S. strikes.
On Thursday, North Korea warned of a "merciless retaliatory strike" should the U.S. take any action.
"By relentlessly bringing in a number of strategic nuclear assets to the Korean peninsula, the U.S. is gravely threatening the peace and safety and driving the situation to the brink of a nuclear war," said North Korea's statement.
North Korea may already be capable of launching chemical weapons, Japan has warned.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he feared Kim Jong-un 'has a capability' to fire missiles tipped with sarin - the same deadly gas used to kill 87 Syrian civilians in a horrifying gas attack last week.
That atrocity prompted the US to launch a surprise wave of missiles on one of dictator Bashar al-Assad's airbases.
Abe told a parliamentary session: 'There is a possibility that North Korea already has a capability to deliver missiles with sarin as warheads.'
A Washington-based think tank that monitors North Korea, 38 North, said satellite images taken on Wednesday showed continued activity around the North's Punggye-ri nuclear test site on the east coast that showed it was ready for a new test.
South Korean officials said on Thursday there were no new signs to indicate a North Korean nuclear test was more likely, although they also said the North has maintained a state of readiness to conduct such a test at any time.
Around 200 foreign journalists gathered in Pyongyang for North Korea's biggest national day, the 'Day of the Sun', were taken to what was billed by officials as a 'big and important event' early on Thursday.
It turned out to be the opening of a new street in the centre of the capital, attended by Kim.
North Korea marks the 105th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il Sung on Saturday. In 2012, it tried but failed to launch a long-range rocket carrying a satellite to mark the date and tested a newly developed intermediate-range missile last year.
Satellite photography reportedly shows that North Korea is preparing its Punggye-ri nuclear test site for another detonation, probably timed to coincide with celebrations of national founder Kim Il-sung’s 105th birthday this weekend.
Borrowing a line from President Donald Trump, Assad said, “You have a lot of fake videos now. We don’t know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhun. Were they dead at all?”
Assad then added that he would allow an investigation into the attack "when we make sure that unbiased countries will participate in this delegation in order to make sure that they won't use it for politicized purposes."
The important question that I and many others have asked is, how in the world would a chemical attack benefit Assad? What does he stand to gain? Absolutely nothing.