Secretary of State John Kerry rejected any notion of an all-out war on the Korean peninsula, saying talk of "Armageddon" was the wrong premise.
"[Kim Jong Un] has to know he's not in the position of attacking this alliance," Kerry said in an interview in Toyko with ABC News as he wrapped up his trip to the region. "That would be a very short-lived effort and a very tragic one."
He called on North Korea to make "meaningful steps" towards denuclearization, as the nation celebrated the 101st birthday of its founder Kim Il-Sung.
The U.S., he said, would be prepared to go back to the negotiating table with Pyongyang, if leader Kim Jong-Un "stripped down" his country's enrichment and production facilities and vowed to become a non-nuclear state.
"If they indicate their commitment to move to denuclearization and they do so by stopping where they are now with respect to this testing and this provocative series of nuclearizing efforts, hopefully we can get into some serious negotiation," Kerry said.
There was no sign that the reclusive nation would respond. The government there brushed aside a similar offer from South Korean leaders as a "cunning ploy."
Kerry's comments came as the region braced for a potential missile launch to mark the start of North Korea's three-day holiday. Ceremonies, flower shows, and festivities were visible throughout the capital, but there were no signs of imminent action in Wonsan and South Hamgyong Province, two locations where satellite images detected mobile missile launchers last week.
"The North Korean regime and its military have been talking as if they could launch a missile anytime after Wednesday," said Kim Min-seok, spokesman for the Defense Ministry. "But it's been five days and due to various reasons, we believe they could drag this [situation] longer."
The Obama administration has dramatically toned down its own rhetoric in recent days, following a strong show of force that raised questions about the U.S. approach to North Korea. Throughout his Asia trip, the secretary has urged a peaceful resolution, and advocated talks over any military action.
"We can't afford to keep going through this cycle because it's getting to the point where that is producing a higher and higher level of capacity on behalf of the North Koreans which makes this more and more dangerous," Kerry told ABC News.
Kerry has said China will be key in facilitating those talks, and expressed strong confidence in Beijing's willingness to pressure Pyongyang. An ally of North Korea, China has historically had strong military and economic ties with the reclusive regime, but on Saturday, Beijing and Washington released a joint statement confirming their commitment to denuclearization. Neither country has provided details on steps they plan to take, aside from a willingness to restart stalled six-party talks.
"The absence of [Chinese pressure] is in fact creating a level of stability that actually threatens China," Kerry said.
He added, Beijing had the greatest leverage with North Korea because it was "their lifeline."
Pyongyang has rejected public overtures for negotiation so far. Following South Korean President Park Guen-hye's initial calls for dialogue, North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland called the offer "a cunning ploy" and an "empty shell."
Kerry's four-day trip to Asia ends at the start of North Korea's "Juche" calendar, which begins with Kim Il-Sung's birthday. The biggest holiday of the year, families gather as the state rations snacks, and distributes clothing, and sweets. North Korean state TV, which normally limits its broadcasts to a few hours in the evening, play documentaries of Kim's life accomplishments throughout the day. They also air a series of musical concerts, including one that features a girl band in white mini-dresses.
Despite that festive mood, South Korean military forces remain on alert for any potential provocations. Defense Ministry spokesman Kim said the launch might be Monday, though nobody could predict an exact date. If North Korea fueled the missile prior to last Wednesday, it could be launched shortly after a decision is made, he said.