U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday labeled the North Korean government led by Kim Jong Un an “illegal and illegitimate regime” — unusually strong language from America’s top diplomat.

Speaking after a meeting with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah, Kerry praised the Persian Gulf nation’s moves to counter the North’s nuclear proliferation activities, saying it had “recently taken steps to curb flights and to make sure that revenues from workers are not sustaining any illegal and illegitimate regime in North Korea.”

Washington routinely condemns Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs as violations of United Nations sanctions, and has taken the isolated nation to task for its human rights record. But it is rare for U.S. officials to directly question the rule of Kim, who took over after his father died in December 2011.

Asked if the statement reflected a sharper U.S. position toward the North, which conducted its fifth and most powerful nuclear test last month, State Department spokesman John Kirby played down the statement.

“I think our position on North Korea has been sufficiently tough for a long, long time,” Kirby said. “I don’t think I would read into what he said as signaling any kind of a change. We’ve been pretty clear and pretty specific about the unlawful activities of the regime on many different levels.”

Kirby said the U.S. hopes to see a return to the long-stalled six-party disarmament talks but did not directly respond to a question on whether Kim had lost the legitimacy to lead the impoverished nation.

Kerry’s statement comes amid growing concern that the North is moving closer to developing a nuclear-tipped missile that could hit the continental United States.

North Korea conducted a failed missile test Thursday — its second in less than a week — of what was believed to be a powerful medium-range Musudan.

Such a weapon could threaten military installations on Guam and the U.S. nuclear bombers deployed there that play a key role in deterrence on the Korean Peninsula.

Some experts have warned that the Musudan could become operational as early as next year amid the North’s ramped-up missile tests.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to visit South Korea and Japan in the coming week for discussions on strategies to deal with the North, the State Department said Friday.

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