PHOENIX (BLOOMBERG) - President Donald Trump said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is beginning to respect the United States, the latest comments that suggest his administration is moving closer to seeking talks over Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal.
"I respect the fact that I believe he is starting to respect us," Mr Trump said of Mr Kim at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona on Tuesday (Aug 22) evening. "Maybe, probably not, something positive will come out of it."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went out of his way earlier on Tuesday to note that North Korea had not carried out "provocative acts" since the UN Security Council imposed new sanctions on the country.
"I am pleased to see that the regime in Pyongyang has certainly demonstrated some level of restraint that we have not seen in the past," Mr Tillerson told reporters at the State Department. "Perhaps we are seeing our pathway to sometime in the near future having some dialogue."
Mr Tillerson volunteered the remarks on North Korea without prompting at a briefing on Tuesday that was arranged to discuss the Trump administration's new approach to Afghanistan. That suggested his intent was to give Mr Kim's regime an opening and a signal.
The comments by Mr Tillerson, the top US diplomat, were far more conciliatory than previous warnings from Mr Trump, who said earlier this month that further threats from Mr Kim's regime would be met with "fire and fury".
Mr Kim has pledged to develop a nuclear missile that could hit the US mainland.
He said earlier this month that he would watch the US' conduct "a little more" before deciding whether to fire ballistic missiles towards Guam, a US territory in the Pacific, as he had threatened.
While North Korea has not conducted a missile launch since the United Nations action, Mr Kim has pushed ahead with developing his nuclear programme.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency reported on Wednesday that Mr Kim asked for increased production of solid-fuel engines and rocket warhead tips. Using solid rather than liquid fuel would allow North Korea to launch missiles with less preparation.
The UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution on Aug 5 banning exports of coal and iron, among other punishments, after Pyongyang tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July.
The restrictions were the third set of sanctions imposed on North Korea in the past 18 months in an effort to halt the country's push to develop its nuclear- and ballistic-missile capabilities.
The US further tightened its financial restrictions on North Korea on Tuesday, slapping sanctions on Chinese and Russian entities it accused of assisting Pyongyang's development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. It is also seeking millions of dollars that it said moved through the US as part of an alleged scheme.
Prosecutors in Washington are seeking to recover US$11 million (S$15 million) from companies based in China and Singapore that they accuse of conspiring with North Korea to evade sanctions.
In complaints filed on Tuesday in federal court in the District of Columbia, they said the companies laundered dollars through US accounts on behalf of sanctioned entities in North Korea.
Mr Tillerson has repeatedly delivered stern messages to North Korea, saying in April, for example, that the two sides were nowhere near ready for negotiations. He has eased that rhetoric in recent weeks, however, saying last week that the US is trying to push North Korea towards talks, even as he underscored that a military strike remains an option.
"We need to see more on their part but I want to acknowledge the steps they've taken thus far," Mr Tillerson said on Tuesday. "I think it's important to take note of that."