August 24, 2017 6:20 am JST

Despite Trump's optimism on Pyongyang, tensions still high

North Korea issuing fiery criticism amid US-South Korea war games

TSUYOSHI NAGASAWA and HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writers

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump. © AP

WASHINGTON/SEOUL -- Although U.S. President Donald Trump has hinted at a potential dialogue with North Korea, the countries remain as divided as ever over Pyongyang's ongoing nuclear and missile development.

"I believe [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] is starting to respect us," Trump said Tuesday at a rally in Phoenix in the U.S. state of Arizona. "Maybe something positive can come about."

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also pointed out at a separate briefing that day that North Korea had not made military provocations since the United Nations Security Council adopted fresh sanctions on Aug. 5. "I am pleased to see that the regime in Pyongyang has certainly demonstrated some level of restraint that we've not seen in the past," he said.

Despite the upbeat comments, it is unclear whether the U.S. is making concrete efforts to strike up a conversation with the North. Pyongyang had not fired a missile or conducted other provocations as of Wednesday, the third day of U.S.-South Korean military drills. It tested a submarine-launched missile in the Sea of Japan during the same exercises last year.

North Korea on Tuesday threatened "merciless retaliation" against hostile U.S. policies targeting the rogue state. Kim also has visited the Chemical Material Institute of the Academy of Defense Science, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday. He has not been reported commenting on plans to launch missiles toward the U.S. territory of Guam.

The Trump administration hopes to bring North Korea to the negotiating table through a combination of military and economic pressures. "The best signal that North Korea could give us that they're prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches," Tillerson had said earlier this month.

On Tuesday, Washington announced new penalties on 10 corporations and six individuals based in China, Russia and other nations for supporting North Korea's nuclear and missile development. These secondary sanctions are intended to turn up the heat on Pyongyang.

Both China and Russia quickly denounced the decision. "The Chinese side opposes the unilateral sanctions outside the framework of the U.N. Security Council," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters Wednesday, even while acknowledging Tillerson's comments on a possible U.S.-North Korean dialogue.

The U.S. "has stepped on the same rake" again, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said.

But there is little room for compromise, given that the U.S. wants North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, while the North hopes to use its nuclear program to bolster its position in any negotiation. Pyongyang's actions during the remainder of the U.S.-South Korean drills, which end Aug. 31, could provide further insight into how the situation will unfold.

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