WATCH: Tillerson commends North Korea restraint, but says 'we need to see more'
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday commended North Korea for recent restraint in its provocations and said it could point the way to a possible dialogue with the U.S.
It was rare positive expression from the U.S. toward the authoritarian government in Pyongyang and comes amid a slight easing in recent tensions between the adversaries that had flared after President Donald Trump pledged to answer North Korean aggression with "fire and fury." North Korea, for its part, had threatened to launch missiles toward the American territory of Guam.
Addressing reporters at the State Department, Tillerson said that North Korea had "demonstrated some level of restraint that we have not seen in the past" by not conducting missile launches or provocative acts since the U.N. Security Council adopted tough sanctions on Aug. 5.
"We hope that this is the beginning of this signal that we have been looking for, that they are ready to restrain their level of tensions, they're ready to restrain their provocative acts," Tillerson said, "and that perhaps we are seeing our pathway to sometime in the near future having some dialogue."
Tillerson added a caveat.
"We need to see more on their part," he said, without elaborating.
The U.N. sanctions were a response to twin tests last month of an intercontinental ballistic missile that may be able to reach parts of the U.S., heightening concern in Washington that North Korea could soon be able to threaten it with nuclear weapons. It was the latest salvo in the Trump administration's push to increase economic and diplomatic pressure on Kim Jong Un's government.
However, the U.S. administration has left the door open to engagement with the North, with Tillerson recently urging it to stop missile tests to show its sincerity. While the two sides have maintained quiet diplomatic contacts in recent months, there has been scant sign that Pyongyang will oblige.
Kim has held off on the North's supposed plans to fire missiles into waters near Guam that were advertised in state media earlier this month, but his government this week has kept up its harsh criticism of the U.S. over annual military drills conducted with close ally South Korea.
The North regards the drills as preparation for invasion and on Tuesday its military vowed, with customarily tough rhetoric, a "merciless retaliation" against the U.S. Senior U.S. military commanders dismissed calls to pause or downsize the exercises that they view as crucial to countering a clear threat from Pyongyang.
In a reminder that the U.S. economic pressure campaign on North Korea continues, Trump administration on Tuesday imposed sanctions on 16 mainly Chinese and Russian companies and people for assisting North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs and helping the North make money to support those programs. The penalties are intended to complement the new U.N. sanctions.
The Treasury Department said that the 16 entities either do business with previously sanctioned companies and people, work with the North Korean energy sector, help it place workers abroad or facilitate its evasion of international financial curbs.
The measures block any assets the entities may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from transactions with them.
"It is unacceptable for individuals and companies in China, Russia, and elsewhere to enable North Korea to generate income used to develop weapons of mass destruction and destabilize the region," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said. "We are taking actions consistent with U.N. sanctions to show that there are consequences for defying sanctions and providing support to North Korea, and to deter this activity in the future."
Among those sanctioned are six Chinese companies, including three coal companies, and two Singapore-based companies that sell oil to North Korea and three Russians that work with them.
The list also included a Russian company that deals in North Korean metals and its Russian director; and two Namibia-based companies.
In addition to the Treasury sanctions, the Justice Department filed suit against two of the companies, Velmur Management of Singapore and China's Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Material Co., demanding that they forfeit more than $11 million that they allegedly money-laundered for North Korea. The suits allege that the two companies participated in schemes to launder U.S. dollars on behalf of sanctioned North Korean entities. The suits seek almost $7 million from Velmur and just over $4 million from Dandong, the Justice Department said.