MOSCOW - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday discussed North Korea’s nuclear programme with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, stressing the need to start a negotiations process.

“The sides were united in the opinion that nuclear missile projects in North Korea violate the demands of the UN Security Council,” the Russian foreign ministry said after the two men spoke by telephone.

Lavrov “once again highlighted that it is unacceptable to exacerbate tensions around the Korean peninsula with Washington’s aggressive rhetoric toward Pyongyang and increasing military preparations in the region,” it said.

“It was underlined that it is necessary to move from the language of sanctions to the negotiating process as soon as possible,” the statement said, adding that it was Tillerson who initiated the call.

The UN Security Council on Friday slapped new sanctions on North Korea that will restrict oil supplies vital for its missile and nuclear programmes, the latest response to Pyongyang’s ICBM test last month.

US President Donald Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if it attacks the United States, while North Korea insists the world must now accept that it is a nuclear power. Pyongyang has slammed the UN sanctions as an “act of war”.

Moscow has called for talks between North Korea and the United States, warning of a “risk of uncontrolled escalation”. Russia has also criticised Washington’s military drills with South Korea saying it provokes Pyongyang.

Meanwhile, the United States on Tuesday sanctioned two senior North Korean officials over the country’s ballistic missile program, the Treasury Department said. “Treasury is targeting leaders of North Korea’s ballistic missile programs, as part of our maximum pressure campaign to isolate (North Korea) and achieve a fully denuclearized Korean Peninsula,” it said in a statement.

The two officials were listed last Friday in a new United Nations Security Council resolution sanctioning North Korea, Treasury said. “Kim Jong Sik reportedly is a key figure in North Korea’s ballistic missile development, including efforts to switch from liquid to solid fuel, and Ri Pyong Chol is reported to be a key official involved in North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile development,” Treasury said.

Tensions between the United States and North Korea have escalated this year, and Pyongyang’s test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on November 28 marked an advance in its drive to threaten the US mainland with a nuclear strike.

A Seoul newspaper said Tuesday that North Korea was preparing to launch a satellite as outside observers warn that the nuclear-armed regime’s space programme is a fig leaf for weapons tests.

Pyongyang is under multiple UN sanctions over its nuclear and missile tests and is prohibited from carrying out any launch using ballistic missile technology including satellites.

“Through various channels, we’ve recently learned that the North has completed a new satellite and named it Kwangmyongsong-5”, the Joongang Ilbo daily reported, quoting a South Korean government source. “Their plan is to put a satellite equipped with cameras and telecommunication devices into orbit”, he said.

Pyongyang launched their Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite in February 2016, which most in the international community viewed as a disguised ballistic missile test.

A spokesman for the South Korean military joint chiefs of staff said there was “nothing out of ordinary at this moment” but added that Seoul was watching out for any provocative acts “including the test of a long-range missile disguised as a satellite launch”.

The report came as the North’s ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun reasserted the regime’s right to launch satellites and develop its space technology.

In a commentary published on Monday and titled “peaceful space programmes are sovereign countries’ legitimate rights”, the daily said Pyongyang’s satellite launches “absolutely correspond” with international laws concerning space development.

At a UN General Assembly committee meeting in October, North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador Kim In-Ryong said his country has a 2016-2020 plan to develop “practical satellites that can contribute to the economic development and improvement of the people’s living”.

He stressed North Korea’s right to produce and launch satellites “will not be changed just because the US denies it”.

North Korea is believed to have successfully put a satellite into orbit in December 2012 after years of failures dating back to 1998 when it launched a pilot satellite and named it Kwangmyongsong-1.

Earlier this month, the Russian newspaper Rossiyskaia Gazeta quoted a Russian military expert, Vladimir Khrustalev, as saying that North Korea was expected to launch two satellites - an Earth exploration satellite and a communications satellite - in the near future.

Khrustalev made the remark after returning from his week-long trip to North Korea in mid-November when he met with representatives of the country’s National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA), the Russian daily said.

Tensions have soared as the isolated regime has staged a series of atomic and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests - most recently on November 29.