U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has welcomed North Korea's decision to reduce its belligerent rhetoric in response to new sanctions by the United Nations Security Council.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday at the State Department, Tillerson said: "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."
The United States hopes this means North Korea is planning to restrain its "provocative acts" in the future, Tillerson said, adding: "Perhaps we are seeing our pathway to, sometime in the near future, having some dialogue."
Earlier in the day, President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Chinese and Russian companies and individuals involved in business deals with North Korea that are believed to have aided its nuclear weapons program.
The U.S. Treasury Department said the 10 companies and six individuals helped North Korea generate revenue that could be used to pay for weapons programs. The businesses and their executives do business with previously sanctioned companies and people who work with the Roth Korean energy sector.
The U.S. Justice Department has filed lawsuits seeking $11 million from companies based in China and Singapore that are accused of conspiring to help North Korea evade sanctions.
A Chinese diplomat called the new sanctions a "mistake," according to news reports from Beijing.
The latest round of increased tensions surrounding North Korea followed Pyongyang's two test launches last month of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which precipitated the U.N. Security Council's decision to impose new and tighter sanctions.
"I think it is worth noting that we have had no missile launches or provocative acts on the part of North Korea since the unanimous adoption of the U.N. Security Council Resolution," Tillerson said Tuesday in a rare briefing for reporters. "And I want to take note of that. I want to acknowledge it."
The top U.S. diplomat said "we need to see more" from North Korea to demonstrate restraint, "but I want to acknowledge the steps they have taken thus far. I think it's important to take note of that."
North Korea warning
Despite Tillerson's conciliatory words, North Korea warned Tuesday that it will "retaliate" for joint U.S.-South Korean military drills under way on the Korean peninsula. A North Korean statement promised "merciless retaliation and unsparing punishment" in response to the drills.
The exercises began Monday and are expected to last 10 days.
North Korea normally uses provocative rhetoric or conducts military weapons tests during the annual exercises, but Pyongyang's rhetoric this year has been more heated than usual, depicting U.S.-South Korean drills as "an aggressive war scenario" designed to execute "pre-emptive strikes" against the North.
Relations between North and South Korea are usually strained, but tensions escalated after Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un exchanged threats for weeks following the two missile tests last month, which Pyongyang said were designed to show that its military is capable of striking as far away as the United States, in addition to American allies South Korea and Japan.