SEOUL - North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un said Tuesday he would hold off on a planned missile strike near Guam, but warned the highly provocative move would go ahead in the event of further "reckless actions" by Washington.
Some analysts suggested Kim's comments opened a possible path to de-escalating a growing crisis fuelled by bellicose words between US President Donald Trump and the North Korean leadership.
Their recent exchanges were focused on a North Korean threat to fire a volley of four missiles over Japan towards the US territory of Guam, which hosts a number of strategic military bases.
The North's official KCNA news agency said Kim was briefed on the "plan for an enveloping fire at Guam" during an inspection on Monday of the Strategic Force command in charge of the nuclear-armed state's missile units.
But Kim said he would "watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees" before executing any order.
If they "persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions on the Korean peninsula," then North Korea would take action "as already declared," he was quoted as saying.
"In order to defuse the tensions and prevent the dangerous military conflict on the Korean peninsula, it is necessary for the US to make a proper option first," he added.
China said Tuesday that the North Korean nuclear crisis had reached a "turning point" and it was time to enter peace talks.
Beijing, which is Pyongyang's main diplomatic ally, has repeatedly called on the United States and North Korea to tone down their rhetoric in recent days.
"We now hope that all the concerned parties, in what they say and what they do, can contribute to extinguishing the fire (of the tense situation), rather than adding fuel to the fire," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
- 'De-escalating' -
The remarks from Pyongyang would appear to bring into play the large-scale military exercises held every year by South Korea and the United States that are expected to kick off later this month.
The North has always denounced the drills as provocative rehearsals for invasion and has in the past offered a moratorium on further nuclear and missile testing in exchange for their cancellation -- a trade-off promoted by Beijing, but repeatedly rejected by Washington and Seoul.
Some analysts said Kim was seeking a similar quid-pro-quo this time around, using the Guam missile threat as leverage.
"This is a direct invitation to talk reciprocal constraints on exercises and missile launches," said Adam Mount, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul said Kim was "de-escalating, putting Guam plan on ice" -- at least for now.
The United States and South Korea insist their annual joint exercises are purely defensive, and cannot be linked to the North's missile programme, which violates a host of UN resolutions.
North Korea Tuesday also appeared to link the fate of its US prisoners to ongoing tensions, saying now is not the right time to discuss their release.
Three Americans, accused of various crimes against the state, are behind bars in the hermit nation.
- 'Fire and fury' -
The North Korean announcement prompted joy in Guam, where officials described themselves as "almost ecstatic that Kim Jong-Un has backed off".
Tensions have been mounting since the North tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles last month, which appeared to bring much of the US within range.
Responding to the tests, US President Donald Trump warned Pyongyang of "fire and fury like the world has never seen", while the North responded with the Guam threat.
South Korean President Moon Jae-In weighed in on Tuesday, saying Seoul would avoid a second Korean War at all costs and "no one may decide to take military action without the consent of the Republic of Korea".
But he added there could be no dialogue before the North halts its "nuclear and missile provocations".
Moon's comments came after US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson penned an opinion piece in the The Wall Street Journal insisting that America has "no interest" in regime change in Pyongyang.
"We do not seek an excuse to garrison US troops north of the Demilitarized Zone," they wrote. "We have no desire to inflict harm on the long-suffering North Korean people, who are distinct from the hostile regime in Pyongyang."
Mattis and Tillerson called on China, which is North Korea's main trading partner, to take advantage of an "unparalleled opportunity" to assert its influence on Pyongyang, and bring its errant neighbour to heel.