TOKYO — China issued a stern warning Friday to both the United States and North Korea, urging them not to push their recriminations to a point of no return and allow war to break out on the Korean Peninsula.
In comments carried by China’s official Xinhua news agency, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said “storm clouds” were gathering, an apparent reference to North Korean preparations to conduct a new nuclear test and the United States’ deployment of a naval strike force to the waters off the peninsula. In addition, the U.S. military has been conducting large-scale military exercises with South Korean forces, drills that the North considers provocative.
“The United States and South Korea and North Korea are engaging in tit for tat, with swords drawn and bows bent,” Wang said after a meeting with visiting French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Xinhua reported. “We urge all sides to no longer engage in mutual provocation and threats, whether through words or deeds.”
He also called on them not to push matters to a point from which they “cannot be turned around.”
If they allow war to break out on the peninsula, they must bear the historical responsibility and “pay the corresponding price,” Wang warned.
Earlier Friday, North Korea accused President Donald Trump of “making trouble” with his “aggressive” tweets, amid concerns that tensions between the two countries could escalate into military action.
And the North Korean army threatened to annihilate U.S. military bases in South Korea and the presidential palace in Seoul in response to what it called Trump’s “maniacal military provocations.”
Tensions have been steadily mounting in recent weeks, as North Korea prepares for what it is calling a “big” event to mark the anniversary of the founder’s birthday Saturday, while the Trump administration warns that all options are on the table.
Expectations for a nuclear test or missile launch in the lead-up to Saturday’s celebrations in Pyongyang have not come to pass. Instead, there were signs that the regime was getting ready to hold a huge parade this weekend, perhaps showing off new missiles — something that would qualify as the “big” event it had heralded.
The United States has sent an aircraft carrier strike group to the Korean Peninsula region, and Trump has repeatedly tweeted that if China will not use its leverage to rein in North Korea, the United States will act.
Vice President Mike Pence arrives in Seoul on Sunday on the first leg of an Asia tour, and he will undoubtedly underscore Washington’s strong alliances with South Korea and Japan and their determination to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
But North Korea’s vice foreign minister said Trump was “becoming more vicious and more aggressive” than previous presidents, which was only making matters worse.
“Trump is always making provocations with his aggressive words,” Han Song Ryol told The Associated Press in an interview in Pyongyang. “So that’s why. It’s not the DPRK but the U.S. and Trump that makes trouble,” he said, using the abbreviation for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea is officially known.
Han also repeated the regime’s common refrain that North Korea is ready to act to defend itself.
“We’ve got a powerful nuclear deterrent already in our hands, and we certainly will not keep our arms crossed in the face of a U.S. pre-emptive strike,” Han told the AP.
As for when the next nuclear test would take place, “that is something that our headquarters decides,” he said.
His message chimed with a statement Friday from North Korea’s Institute for Disarmament and Peace that it was the United States pushing the Korean Peninsula, “the world’s biggest hotspot,” to the brink of war by bringing back a naval strike group.
“This has created a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out any moment on the peninsula and pose a serious threat to the world’s peace and security,” the statement said.
North Korea has a habit of fueling tensions to increase the rewards it might extract from the outside world if it desists. Previously, North Korea has agreed to return to denuclearization talks in return for aid or the easing of sanctions.
Trump is tearing up that old playbook, analysts said.
“This approach to North Korea is relatively new,” said James Kim of the Asan Institute of Policy Studies in Seoul. “The approach in the past has been very calculated.”
That has gone out the window with talk about military options, he said. “We always knew all these options were there, but no one was bold enough to go down that path. It’s a new approach.”
Some in Beijing are noting the difference, too.
“It should be noted that there is a personality difference between Trump and Obama,” the Global Times newspaper wrote Friday. The paper does not speak for the Chinese government on policy but often reflects a strain of thinking within the Communist Party.
“Trump is also willing to show he is different. Bombing Syria helps him to show that,” it continued, while noting that he was far from “revolutionary” because he dispatched only missiles, not troops.
But North Korea could prove different if it calls Trump’s bluff and conducts another nuclear test, the paper said. “Trump just took the office; if he loses to Pyongyang, he would feel like he had lost some prestige.”
Right now, Trump has some cards to play, said Kim of the Asan Institute.
“He might say, ‘If you want one less battleship in the region, what are you going to give me?’” he said, in a reversal from the usual situation in which North Korea asks what it can get from its adversaries in return for changing its behavior.
Amid these tensions, reports of impending military action have been swirling.
NBC News, citing intelligence officials, reported Thursday that the United States was ready to launch a pre-emptive strike if North Korea appeared to be about to conduct a nuclear test.
But a defense official said this was “speculative,” and analysts said they highly doubted that Washington would take such action, describing a situation in which tougher sanctions and more rigorous implementation remained the best remedy.
Trump’s tweets and his conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping seem designed to push Beijing to crack down on North Korea, and there have been some indications that China is getting tougher on its errant neighbor.
China banned coal imports from North Korea in mid-February — potentially cutting off an economic lifeline — and Chinese customs data released Thursday showed a 52 percent drop in imports in the first three months of this year, compared with the same period last year.
Chinese state media reported that the government also will suspend Air China flights between Beijing and Pyongyang beginning Monday. It gave no other details on how long the suspension could last.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government is taking precautions of its own.
Its National Security Council has discussed how to evacuate the roughly 60,000 Japanese nationals living in South Korea and how to deal with a potential influx of North Koreans, according to multiple local reports. These plans include sifting out spies or soldiers who might be among the refugees.
The North Korean situation is getting more serious, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Friday. “We cannot turn away from this reality. The security environment surrounding Japan is getting tougher.”
Washington Post writers Jin Xin, William Branigin and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.