North Korea turns to Southeast Asian nations for help to stop 'nuclear holocaust'

North Korea has appealed to neighbouring nations for support in what it says is its ongoing campaign to prevent what could be a "nuclear holocaust".

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho warned the situation on the Korean peninsula was "reaching the point of war" due to US actions in a letter to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' secretary general.

The letter criticised the length of the US-South Korean military exercises and urged the ASEAN chief to notify the 10 member nations' foreign ministers on the "grave situation".

North Korea has held live artillery tests. Photo: Korean Central News Agency

“I express my expectations that ASEAN which attaches great importance to the regional peace and stability will make an issue of the US-South Korean joint military exercises at ASEAN conferences from the fair position, and play an active role in safeguarding the peace and safety of Korean Peninsula,” he said in the letter a copy of which was obtained by the AFP.

The rogue state is believed to have strong ties with some ASEAN members including Cambodia and Laos, but the organisation has previously criticised North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

US set to vote for tougher sanctions on North Korea

Meanwhile, the US House of Representatives could vote as soon as next week on legislation to toughen sanctions on North Korea by targeting its shipping industry and companies that do business with the reclusive state, congressional aides said on Thursday.

The legislation, approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month, is intended to cut off supplies of cash that help fund North Korea's nuclear program, and increase pressure to stop human rights abuses such as the use of slave labour, the bill's sponsor, Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, said.

The North Korean leader was seen saluting during the tests. Photo: Korean Central News Agency

It also calls on President Donald Trump's administration to decide whether North Korea is a state sponsor of terrorism.

Amid international concern over the escalation of North Korea's nuclear program, top Trump administration officials held briefings on the issue on Wednesday for the entire US Congress, busing the 100 senators to the White House and meeting with members of the 435-person House at the Capitol complex.

As he left the House briefing, Royce said he expected the legislation to move quickly, as part of what he hoped would be a strong international effort to use every method possible to pressure Pyongyang to curb its nuclear ambitions.

South Korea and the US held joint military exercises near the boarder with North Korea. Photo: Kyoda

"In particular, it will focus on financial institutions as well as what you might call 'slave labor.' These are cases where the North Koreans send out work crews to do work, and instead of being paid, the money comes back to the North Korean regime, and is spent on their nuclear program," Royce told reporters.

The Trump administration said it wanted to push North Korea into dismantling its nuclear and missile programs through tougher international sanctions and diplomatic pressure, and remained open to negotiations to bring that about.

North Korea has asked for the help of Southeast Asian nations in its confrontation with the US. Photo: AP

Officials also said on Wednesday they wanted to return the country to the US list of terrorism sponsors.

A spokesman for Royce declined to comment on when there might be a vote, referring questions to House leadership, whose aides did not immediately respond to a request to confirm the timing.

Trump's secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is due to meet with the U.N. Security Council on Friday to press for tougher international sanctions on North Korea.