KIM Jong-un has held a key meeting with North Korea’s military leaders after threatening a nuke launch as a “Christmas gift” for Donald Trump.
The despot is understood to have held the talks to hammer out a plan to bolster the hermit kingdom’s armed forces and nuclear program.
It comes amid speculation that the North could abandon diplomacy with the US and launch either a long-range missile or a satellite-carrying rocket.
Any major launch or test would mean the end of Kim Jong-un's self-imposed missile moratorium and raise tensions in the region.
It would also be a major blow to one of the Trump administration's major foreign policy initiatives - the drive to get North Korea back to negotiations to eliminate its nuclear arsenal.
Earlier this month, the North conducted what US officials say was an engine test.
Kim's military described it as crucial and experts believe that it may have involved an engine for a space launch vehicle or long-range missile.
Pentagon officials fear it could be a prelude to the possible launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile in the coming days or weeks.
Any test involving an ICBM would have the most serious impact on the diplomatic effort because it would be considered a move by North Korea to acquire the ability to strike the US, or, even worse, to show they already have it.
"North Korea has been advancing. It has been building new capabilities," said Anthony Wier, a former State Department official who tracks nuclear disarmament for the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
"As long as that continues, they gain new capabilities to try new missiles to threaten us and our allies in new ways."
Earlier this month, North Korea issued a very chilly festive warning to Donald Trump by saying it is “up to the US what Christmas gift it will get” from the rogue state.
Kim has given the White House until December 31 to end what it calls ongoing “hostility” while warning time is running out to salvage nuclear missile talks.
And Victor Cha, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a review of the possible launch sites in North Korea show that they are a basically ready to go.
He said the expected launch could be a test of a sea-based ballistic missile or a solid-fuel rocket.
Using solid fuel allows North Korea to more quickly fuel up a rocket, providing less lead time for the US or others to prepare for a launch.
Sea-based launches are also more difficult to locate and would give less warning or time for the US to react.
Either one, he said, would be a new type of problem that the US would have to deal with.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters earlier this week that the US has heard all the talk of a possible upcoming test around Christmas.
"I've been watching the Korean Peninsula for a quarter-century now. I'm familiar with their tactics, with their bluster," he said.
"We need to get serious and sit down and have discussions about a political agreement that denuclearises the peninsula.
"That is the best way forward and arguably the only way forward if were going to do something constructive."
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Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, the special US envoy for North Korea, has also warned of a possible launch.
"We are fully aware of the strong potential for North Korea to conduct a major provocation in the days ahead," he said.
"To say the least, such an action will be most unhelpful in achieving lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula."