Kim orders more rockets - but tensions may be easing
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ordered more solid-fuel rocket engines, state media reported yesterday, as he pursues nuclear and missile programmes amid a standoff with Washington, but there were signs of tension easing.
The report carried by the KCNA news agency lacked the traditionally robust threats against the United States after weeks of unbridled acrimony, and US President Donald Trump expressed optimism about a possible improvement in relations.
"I respect the fact that he is starting to respect us," Mr Trump said.
"And maybe - probably not, but maybe - something positive can come about."
The KCNA report, about a visit by Mr Kim to a chemical institute, came not long after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to make a peace overture, welcoming what he called recent restraint shown by the reclusive North.
Mr Kim was briefed about the process of manufacturing intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) warhead tips and solid-fuel rocket engines during his tour of the Chemical Material Institute of the Academy of Defence Science, KCNA said.
"He instructed the institute to produce more solid-fuel rocket engines and rocket warhead tips by further expanding engine production process and the production capacity of rocket warhead tips and engine jets by carbon/carbon compound material," KCNA said.
North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and dozens of missile tests since the beginning of last year, significantly raising tension on the heavily militarised Korean peninsula and in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. Two ICBM tests in July resulted in a new round of tougher global sanctions.
The last missile test on July 28 put the US mainland in range, prompting heated exchanges that raised fears of a new conflict on the peninsula.
Mr Tillerson, however, noted what he called the restraint the North had shown and said on Tuesday he hoped a path could be opening for dialogue.
South Korea and the United States are conducting an annual military exercise this week involving computer simulations of a war.
The drills, which the North routinely describes as preparation for invasion, run until August 31, and included a South Korean civil defence exercise yesterday that saw traffic halted, movie screenings interrupted and hundreds of thousands of people directed to underground shelters.
The KCNA report said Mr Kim had given "special thanks and special bonus" to officials of the institute, calling them heroes. A photograph showed Mr Kim in a grey pinstriped suit, smiling before a large flow chart that described some kind of manufacturing process.
There was none of the fiery rhetoric of recent weeks, when Mr Kim threatened to fire missiles into the sea near the US Pacific territory of Guam after Mr Trump warned North Korea it would face "fire and fury" if it threatened the US.
But there were some signs of tension after the United States imposed new North Korea-related sanctions, targeting Chinese and Russian firms and individuals for supporting North Korea's weapons programmes.
China reacted with irritation, saying the United States should "immediately correct its mistake" of imposing unilateral sanctions on Chinese companies and individuals.