WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump has said a "major, major conflict" with North Korea was possible over its nuclear and ballistic missile tests, while China said the situation on the Korean peninsula could escalate or slip out of control.
Mr Trump, speaking to Reuters on Thursday, said he wanted to resolve the crisis peacefully, possibly through the use of new economic sanctions, although a military option was not off the table.
"There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea," he said in an interview at the Oval Office. "We'd love to solve things diplomatically but it's very difficult," he said, describing North Korea as his biggest global challenge.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said there was a danger that the situation on the Korean peninsula could escalate or slip out of control. Mr Wang made the comment in a meeting at the United Nations with a Russian diplomat on Thursday, his ministry said in a statement.
China, the North's only major ally, has been increasingly uncomfortable in recent months about its neighbour's pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles in violation of UN resolutions. The United States has called on China to do more to rein in Pyongyang, and Mr Trump lavished praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping for his efforts, calling him "a good man". "I believe he is trying very hard. I know he would like to be able to do something. Perhaps it's possible that he can't. But I think he'd like to be able to do something."
US PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP ON NORTH KOREA
There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely.
TRUMP ON NORTH KOREAN LEADER KIM JONG UN
He's 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want but that is not easy, especially at that age. I'm not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I'm just saying that's a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he's rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he's rational.
TRUMP ON CHINESE LEADER XI JINPING AND THE NORTH KOREA THREAT
I believe he is trying very hard. He certainly doesn't want to see turmoil and death. He doesn't want to see it. He is a good man. He is a very good man and I got to know him very well.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday that China had asked North Korea not to conduct any more nuclear tests. Beijing had warned Pyongyang it would impose unilateral sanctions if it went ahead, he added. Mr Tillerson was due to chair a meeting with UN Security Council foreign ministers yesterday, where he was expected to stress the need for members to fully implement existing sanctions as well as possible next steps.
China banned imports of North Korean coal in February, cutting off its most important export, and Chinese media this month raised the possibility of restricting oil shipments to the North if it unleashed more provocations.
The US, in a show of force, is sending the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group to waters off the Korean peninsula, where it will join the USS Michigan, a nuclear submarine that docked in South Korea on Tuesday. South Korea's navy has said it will hold drills with the US strike group.
Admiral Harry Harris, the top US commander in the Pacific, said on Wednesday that the carrier was in the Philippine Sea, within two hours' striking distance of North Korea. He also said a US missile defence system being deployed in South Korea to ward off any North Korean attack would be operational in the coming days. China has been angered by the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system, complaining that it undermines its security.
Mr Trump said in the interview that he wanted South Korea to pay the cost of the Thaad, which he estimated at US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion). But South Korea yesterday said the US would have to bear the cost, pointing to possible friction ahead.
Mr Trump's remarks came as South Korea heads into a presidential election on May 9 that will likely elect liberal front runner Moon Jae In, who has said the next administration in Seoul should have the final say on the Thaad.
In the interview, Mr Trump also said he would consult his Chinese counterpart before talking to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen again as doing so risked jeopardising China's vital cooperation on North Korea. Ms Tsai said earlier this week that a second call was possible even though Mr Trump was now in the White House.
Taiwan's President Office said yesterday that Ms Tsai had no plans to repeat her Dec 2 phone conversation with Mr Trump. "We understand that the United States has priorities in dealing with regional matters," it said.