China has warned that conflict could break out “at any moment” over North Korea amid fears Pyongyang is preparing to launch a sixth nuclear test or more missiles in defiance of UN sanctions and stark warnings from the US.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged the US and North Korea to take steps to prevent the situation on the Korean peninsula from going down “an irreversible route”.
He said: “We call on all parties to refrain from provoking and threatening each other, whether in words or actions, and not to let the situation get to an irreversible and unmanageable stage,” Xinhua, China’s official news agency reported.
“If a war occurs, the result is a situation in which everybody loses and there can be no winner. It is not the one who espouses harsher rhetoric or raises a bigger fist that will win.”
Earlier, North Korea's vice foreign minister blamed President Donald Trump for escalating tensions through his tweets and expansion of military exercises, saying the US was becoming “more vicious and more aggressive” under his leadership than it had been under President Barack Obama.
“We will go to war if they choose," Han Song Ryol told the Associated Press.
“Whatever comes from US politicians, if their words are designed to overthrow the DPRK system and government, we will categorically reject them,” he said.
He also said that despite demands from China to suspend weapons tests, North Korea would continue to build its nuclear arsenal in “quantity” and “quality”.
The US has sent an aircraft carrier to waters off the peninsula and is conducting its biggest-ever joint military exercises with South Korea.
China may also have deployed as many as 150,000 troops to the North Korea border on Sunday, as part of these exercises.
Pyongyang, meanwhile, recently launched a ballistic missile, and some experts say it could conduct another nuclear test at virtually any time.
At the end of last month US monitoring group 38 North claimed satellite images showed the regime was very close to carrying out a nuclear test, possibly to coincide with Saturday's huge military display in Pyongyang to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung.
US Vice President Mike Pence will also travel to South Korea on Sunday, in a signal of commitment to defending the country from North Korean aggression.
The White House said the purpose of the trip was to “consult with the Republic of Korea on North Korea's efforts to advance its ballistic missile and its nuclear program”.
Jean H Lee, a Fellow at the Wilson Center and the first American journalist granted extensive access on the ground in North Korea, told The Independent: “This type of rhetoric is routine for this time of year - but that said, we have a couple of new factors. One is obviously President Trump, and the unpredictability of his statements and actions has created an unusually volatile situation.”
The pace of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons is of chief concern - they have certainly been ramping up the testing.
“Every time Pyongyang tests, they get closer to developing the technology they would need to put a nuclear weapon on a course to strike the US.
“Another major concern is the aircraft carrier strike group in Korean waters. Everyone has their gun poised, and if somebody makes a move it could erupt into a deadly conflict. It has happened in the past, and the last few days have shown us that the Korean War not over."
Ms Lee also said she thought sanctions against North Korea would be a more effective course of action to pursue.
“Threatening to consider all options, including a pre-emptive military strike is, of course, inflammatory. We’ll have to wait and see whether this is the right approach.
“North Korea is actually benefiting greatly from this stand off - as it plays into their desire to appear to be perceived as a ‘strong country’,” she added.
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