China has placed military forces on heightened alert in the northeastern part of the country as tensions mount on the Korean peninsula following recent threats by Pyongyang to attack, U.S. officials said.
Reports from the region reveal the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) recently increased its military posture in response to the heightened tensions, specifically North Korea’s declaration of a "state of war" and threats to conduct missile attacks against the United States and South Korea.
According to the officials, the PLA has stepped up military mobilization in the border region with North Korea since mid-March, including troop movements and warplane activity.
China’s navy also conducted live-firing naval drills by warships in the Yellow Sea that were set to end Monday near the Korean peninsula, in apparent support of North Korea, which was angered by ongoing U.S.-South Korean military drills that are set to continue throughout April.
North Korea, meanwhile, is mobilizing missile forces, including road-mobile short- and medium-range missiles, according to officials familiar with satellite imagery of missile bases.
The missile activity is believed to be North Korea’s response to the ongoing U.S.-South Korean military exercises that last week included highly publicized flights by two B-2 strategic nuclear bombers near North Korean territory as part of annual military exercises.
North Korea’s government announced last week that since March 26 its missile and artillery forces have been placed on the highest alert status.
Specifically, Nodong medium-range missiles and their mobile launchers were spotted in satellite imagery, the officials said.
There are also indications North Korea will soon conduct a flight test of its new KN-08 road-mobile ICBM or its intermediate-range Musudan mobile missile. Test preparations had been detected in the past, the officials said.
A military provocation by North Korean forces against the South is not expected while the current war games are underway in South Korea, officials said.
However, the situation remains dangerous as hostilities could break out as a result of a miscalculation. South Korea’s government has said it would respond to any North Korean military provocation with force.
The Chinese military activities near North Korea were detected in Jilin Province, and intelligence reports from the area on March 19 indicated that PLA forces were ordered to go to "Level One" alert status, the highest level of readiness.
Large groups of soldiers were seen on the streets in Ji’an, a city in Jilin, amid reports that the PLA had been ordered to combat readiness status.
PLA heavy armored vehicles, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, were reported moving near the Yalu River that separates China from North Korea.
The troops were part of the 190th Mechanized Infantry Brigade, stationed in Benxi, in Liaoning Province. The movements are believed to be related to increased tensions in Korea.
Additionally, PLA troops and military vehicles were seen near Baishan, in Jilin province, around March 21.
Low-flying PLA air force jets, believed to be fighters, also were heard and seen at several border locations in China, including Yanji and Yanbian in Jilin, Kuancheng, in Hebei province, and Dandong, in Liaoning province.
Chinese forces along the border responded to some unknown event in North Korea near Siniju on March 21 that involved Chinese fighter jets flying over the area.
The officials said the Chinese military activities appear to be based on concerns about a new outbreak of conflict between North Korea and South Korea and the United States.
China’s military maintains a long-standing defense treaty with the North that obligates China to defend North Korea in the event it is attacked. The last time Chinese forces backed Pyongyang was during the Korean War when tens of thousands of Chinese "volunteers" drove south into the peninsula.
Chinese military spokesmen frequently refer to their relations with the Korean People’s Army, as the North Korean military is called, as ties "as close as lips and teeth."
Other reports from China indicate that the heightened tensions have led to a disruption of trade between China and North Korea along the border between the two countries.
One sign of slowed commerce between China and North Korea was a Chinese Internet report from a restaurant owner in Dandong, China, a border city, who said commerce between the two countries was disrupted following North Korea’s Feb. 12 underground nuclear test.
Since that time, it has been more difficult for the goods from North Korea to reach China because the North Korean Customs Office closed frequently as a result of increased Chinese inspections of North Korean goods.
U.S. officials and private analysts said the slowdown may be a sign of Beijing’s displeasure at the North Korean nuclear test.
China also held up exports of crude oil to North Korea in February, according to customs data reviewed by Reuters news agency. The agency said in a report that it was the first time deliveries of oil were cut since early 2007.
However, in a sign of continuing close relations, the government of Jilin province announced March 27 that it plans to modernize railway links to North Korea to bolster cross-border economic and trade ties.
The China Tumen-North Korea Rajin Railway and China Tumen-North Korea Chongjin Railway will be upgraded under the Jilin government plan, China’s official Global Times reported.
Additionally, the Chinese plan to set up a special highway passenger line to connect Tumen to North Korea over the next several years.
Other reports from the region stated that North Korean cities in the northern part of the country were placed on "combat" alert and have conducted evacuation drills, officials said.
The drills have been carried out in three-day to five-day intervals when power and water supplies were suspended as part of the exercises.
Chinese citizens living in border cities in China also reported hearing air-raid sirens as part of the exercises, officials said.
U.S. officials say China’s main fear for its fraternal communist client regime in North Korea is a collapse of order that leads to large-scale refugee flows into China.
Reports from inside North Korea also revealed that North Korean soldiers have been issued bread, instant noodles, sausages, milk, and dried fish that appeared to be supplied by the United Nations as aid meant for the civilian population.
The Feb. 12 underground blast, North Korea’s third, is credited by analysts with setting off the latest round of belligerence by the Pyongyang regime.
After the test, the U.S. government continued to refuse to acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.
That prompted the regime of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to issue unprecedented threats to fire nuclear missiles at the United States.
The Pentagon responded by using annual military exercises with South Korea to fly B-52 strategic bombers and later B-2s near North Korea.
Frontline F-22 fighter-bombers, the Air Force’s most advanced jets, were sent on Sunday to take part in the military drills.
North Korea’s latest threats included announcing a state of war and cutting off military and other communications.
North Korea’s ruling communist Korean Workers Party announced on Sunday that the nuclear arsenal is the "nation’s life" and would not be given up even if offered "billions of dollars," the Associated Press reports.