North Korea’s neighbours continued to amass substantial amounts of military hardware in the region on Friday as tensions escalated ahead of a major military anniversary for Kim Jong-un’s regime next week.
There were reports of increased activity from Chinese bombers and Russia deploying troops to its Far East while South Korea was put on heightened alert ahead of 85th anniversary of the foundation of its Korean People’s Army on Tuesday.
With regional analysts fearing that the North’s defiant young dictator will order another missile or nuclear test to mark the occasion, South Korea announced it was placing its forces in a state of heightened alert.
The build-up of tension come as a US aircraft carrier navy group continued to move towards Korean waters, amid reports that the heads of the Five Eyes intelligence agencies – the US, UK, Austrialia, Canada and New Zealand – were to hold their annual meeting in a secluded New Zealand mountain resort.
US officials said Chinese bombers had been put on “high alert” in order to react to a potential crisis on the Korean peninsula, several reports said.
The steps would bring the aircraft up to “full readiness through intensified maintenance,” and would “reduce the time to react to a North Korea contingency,” reported CNN, citing a US defence official.
The move was swiftly denied by Beijing.
It comes after US president Donald Trump cryptically told the media on Thursday that “some very unusual moves have been made over the last two or three hours” by the Chinese.
Mr Trump also said he was confident Chinese President Xi Jinping would “try very hard” to pressure North Korea over its nuclear and missile programmes.
Observers believe Mr Trump’s confrontational stance towards North Korea is aimed at pressuring China into reining in its wayward neighbour.
He tweeted on Friday: “China is very much the economic lifeline to North Korea so, while nothing is easy, if they want to solve the North Korean problem, they will.”
Chinese media has suggested in recent weeks that Beijing could halt the supply of crude oil to North Korea, a move that would put huge pressure on Kim’s regime.
But an influential Chinese newspaper said on Friday that China cannot force North Korea to give up its weapons without help from other nations.
The state-run China Daily said: “No party can fulfill the mission single-handedly. Washington must be aware of the limitations to Beijing’s abilities, and refrain from assuming that the matter can be consigned entirely to Beijing alone.”
Fears are growing in the region that any provocation from Pyongyang could prompt a strong response from Mr Trump, whose administration has declared on multiple occasions that the era of “strategic patience” was over.
The Kremlin refused to discuss reports that Russian military hardware and troops were being moved towards the border with North Korea.
Residents and local media in Russia’s Far East reported large military convoys travelling in the direction of the North Korean border since the weekend.
A video published by local news site DVHab.ru showed a train carrying twelve tracked vehicles, including Tor surface to air missile systems, travelling through Khabarovsk in the direction of Vladivostok.
Earlier reports in South Korean media that China had sent 150,000 troops to its border with North Korea were dismissed by Beijing last wee.
Beijing fears any potential conflict in the region would result in pro-US troops on its border, and also cause a huge refugee crisis in its north-east.
South Korean officials said it was prepared if Pyongyang provoked hostilities amid the escalating tensions.
“It is a situation where a lot of exercise equipment is amassed in North Korea and also a lot of strategic assets are situated on the Korean peninsula because of the South Korea-US military drills,” said a spokesman in Seoul.
“We are closely watching the situation and will not be letting our guards down.”