US President Donald Trump said Monday he would be "honored" to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un under the right conditions, in comments that contrasted with earlier threats of military action.
As Pyongyang threatens to carry out a sixth nuclear test that would further inflame tensions, Trump appeared to offer the prospect of a diplomatic off-ramp.
"If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him I would, absolutely. I would be honored to do it," Trump said in an interview with Bloomberg.
"If it's under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that," Trump said.
South Korean analysts said the US president was "groping for an exit" after weeks of heightened tensions over the North's weapons ambitions.
In recent weeks Trump has threatened and berated the regime, fearing it may be months away from marrying nuclear and long-range missile technology --- making a strike against the western United States possible.
Trump's main gambit has been to encourage China to use its leverage to pressure Pyongyang -- a strategy that has failed to produce results in the past.
The Republican president has also said he is ready to act alone in the stand-off, however -- and on Monday signaled that this could involve face-to-face talks with Kim, who has yet to meet a foreign leader since taking power.
"Following weeks of huffing and puffing, Trump is apparently groping for an exit," said Hong Hyun-Ik of Sejong University in Seoul.
"True to his mentality as a businessman, he has driven the situation close to the edge but stopped short of pushing it over the cliff in order to get the upper hand in future negotiations. "
- CIA chief's visit -
In the latest rhetoric to fuel jitters across the region, North Korea -- which has carried out five nuclear tests in the last 11 years -- warned Monday that it was prepared to carry out another test "at any time and at any location" set by its leadership.
The regime will continue bolstering its "preemptive nuclear attack" capabilities unless Washington scraps its hostile policies, a spokesman for the North's foreign ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run KCNA news agency.
"The DPRK's measures for bolstering the nuclear force to the maximum will be taken in a consecutive and successive way at any moment and any place decided by its supreme leadership," the spokesman added, apparently referring to a sixth nuclear test and using the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Pyongyang intensifies its warnings every spring, when Washington and Seoul carry out joint exercises it condemns as rehearsals for invasion. But this time fears of conflict have been fueled by a cycle of threats from both sides.
The joint drills have just ended, but naval exercises are continuing in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) with a US strike group led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, and US B1-B bombers carried out bilateral missions with South Korean and Japanese aircraft in the region Monday.
CIA director Mike Pompeo was in South Korea on an unannounced visit Monday as tensions mount on the peninsula.
Pompeo's visit coincided with news that the controversial US missile defense system known as THAAD -- whose deployment has angered China -- was operational in South Korea.
US Forces Korea said THAAD was "operational and has the ability to intercept North Korean missiles and defend the Republic."
- 'A pretty smart cookie' -
Trump on Sunday repeated his determination to resolve the threat posed by North Korea, warning in a CBS interview: "We cannot let what's been going on for a long period of years continue."
But the US leader also offered some backhanded praise for Kim, saying he had faced a formidable challenge in taking over the country at a reported age of 27 after his father's death in 2011.
"He's dealing with obviously very tough people, in particular the generals and others. And at a very young age, he was able to assume power," Trump said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
"So obviously, he's a pretty smart cookie," he said.
That comment left the White House struggling to downplay Trump's apparent admiration.
"His point was he assumed power at a young age when his father passed away and there's a lot of potential threats that could have come his way and he's obviously managed to lead a country forward,” said Press Secretary Sean Spicer.