WASHINGTON • United States President Donald Trump has thanked China for helping to rein in North Korea, and claimed that international pressure on the nuclear-armed rogue regime is beginning to work, marking a change in tone after days of escalating rhetoric with Pyongyang.
He made a point of praising President Xi Jinping for his efforts to squeeze Chinese ally North Korea economically and diplomatically.
In other settings - usually Twitter - he has complained about lacklustre Chinese cooperation and suggested he could punish China economically if it did not do more.
"I applaud China for breaking off all banking relationships with North Korea, something that people would have thought unthinkable even two months ago," he said. "I want to thank President Xi."
Although he repeated a threat of military action on Tuesday, his language was mild by comparison to his branding of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as "a madman" and his vow last week to "totally destroy" North Korea if necessary to protect the US or its allies.
He warned that any US military option would be "devastating" for Pyongyang, but also said that the use of force was not Washington's first option. "We are totally prepared for the second option - not a preferred option," he said at a White House news conference, referring to military force.
BLOWING HOT AND COLD
We are totally prepared for the second option - not a preferred option... But if we take that option, it will be devastating, I can tell you that. For North Korea, that is called the military option. If we have to take it, we will.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP
I applaud China's recent action to restrict its trade with North Korea. In particular, I applaud China for breaking off all banking relationships with North Korea... I want to thank President Xi.
"But if we take that option, it will be devastating, I can tell you that. For North Korea, that is called the military option. If we have to take it, we will."
He also reiterated his view that he inherited the North Korea problem from his predecessors.
"You had various administrations - many administrations which left me a mess. But I will fix the mess."
Mr Trump's remarks appear to be an attempt at lowering the temperature after days of heated rhetoric and threats from both sides.
During his first address to the United Nations last week, he repeated his dismissive "rocket man" nickname for Mr Kim and shocked some UN diplomats with an open threat of warfare. Then on Saturday, the US launched a symbolic bomber flight off the North Korean coastline. The North's top diplomat said on Monday that the US had effectively declared war, and warned that Pyongyang could shoot down a US warplane at will.
Mr Trump's statements on Tuesday closely echo the more diplomatic message being delivered in public and private by top administration officials, who present the threat of military action as part of a coordinated strategy to slow down North Korea's weapons drive and impress on Mr Kim that these weapons are ultimately a liability.
Mr Trump spoke at the news conference with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose nation complied with the US administration's request to downgrade diplomatic ties with North Korea in response to its threats against the US.
There have been no public defections from the diplomatic coalition condemning North Korea's recent nuclear and missile tests, as Mr Trump noted.
"I appreciate the United Nations Security Council voting twice, unanimously - 15 to nothing, twice - to adopt hard-hitting resolutions against North Korea," he said.
Just before Mr Trump spoke, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions on eight North Korean banks, 26 people in China and three other countries that the administration says are linked to North Korean financial networks.
The penalties come on top of unilateral US sanctions announced last week that are meant to close off the US financial system to Pyongyang and anyone doing business with it, as well as the international import and export curbs approved since last month.
WASHINGTON POST, BLOOMBERG