The ruling Chinese Communist Party is suspending flights in and out of the North Korean capital Pyongyang by its state-run flag-carrier Air China, the only foreign airline that currently flies there, following warnings that rising tensions could soon escalate into war.
"Air China flights between Beijing and Pyongyang will be suspended from Monday," state broadcaster CCTV said on its official social media account on Friday.
The move, ostensibly owing to a "shortage of passengers," followed warnings from China's foreign minister that tensions might reach an "irreversible and unmanageable stage" after the U.S. deployed an aircraft carrier group to the region amid fears the isolated Stalinist state may conduct a sixth nuclear weapons test in honor of late supreme leader Kim Il Sung's birthday.
North Korea has conducted missile and nuclear tests in defiance of U.N. and unilateral sanctions, and while Beijing is Pyongyang's sole major ally, China is also against its unpredictable "younger brother" acquiring a nuclear strike capacity.
"We call on all parties to refrain from provoking and threatening each other, whether in words or actions, and not let the situation get to an irreversible and unmanageable stage," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a regular news briefing on Friday.
The U.S. says it is assessing military options in response to reports of activity at a nuclear test site in North Korea ahead of Saturday's 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung.
Meanwhile, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence travels to South Korea on Sunday on a scheduled regional visit, as Chinese diplomatic sources indicated to the South China Morning Post newspaper that Beijing isn't obliged to help defend the North from a U.S. attack if it has developed nuclear weapons in defiance of U.N. resolutions.
The last Air China flight of the week between the two capitals arrived in Beijing at 6 p.m. Friday, leaving the North Korean state-run flag-carrier Air Koryo the only airline still flying there.
Mounting political pressure
According to Hong Kong-based North Korea expert Chung Lok-wai, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is widely seen as having less patience than that of former President Barack Obama, and that political pressure is now mounting on his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
"I think he is likely to have told Xi Jinping at their recent summit that if there is no clear movement from the Chinese side to put pressure on North Korea to stop its provocations, then the U.S. will find its own method of dealing with the problem," Chung told RFA on Friday.
"I think that message was made extremely clear, with the aim of putting a last bit of pressure on China," he said.
Chung said Beijing now has the difficult task of persuading Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table.
"I think that getting North Korea to agree to dialogue is going to be fairly difficult, given the current situation in Northeast Asia at the moment," he said.
"There isn't much political will in Pyongyang for dialogue at the moment, so they will only resume talks under some kind of additional pressure."
Speaking before the announcement that Air China flights were suspended, he said: "China needs to step up economic pressure on the North, so that it actually feels the effects. That is one effective way of stopping its provocations."
Professor Liang Yunxiang, of Beijing University's School of International Relations, said he is cautiously pessimistic.
"It may be very dangerous to send in the aircraft carrier if the North really plans to carry out a test," Liang said.
"There may not be war in April, but the outlook is very negative in the longer term," he said.
An employee surnamed Sun who answered the phone at a travel agency in the Chinese border city of Dandong offering tours to North Korea said there are scant signs of military tension in the city.
"[There was] a report of an emergency evacuation that was fake news," Sun told RFA. "There will be a military review in North Korea tomorrow and an anniversary celebration, and it's really bustling at the moment."
"There has been no change at all here in Dandong; the situation is normal here," he said. "It's just the people from elsewhere in China who are getting nervous."
"In the event that they won't allow foreigners in, the International Association of Travel Agents and the foreign ministry will issue a warning," he said.
‘We will cope with it’
Meanwhile, Wu Fei, senior fellow at the Chinese public diplomacy and international relations think tank Chahar Institute, said much depends on the U.S. attitude.
"I think there are two parts to this question," Wu said. "The first part is how likely the Americans are to launch a military attack on North Korea, and the second part is how likely the North is to carry out another nuclear test."
"It's all about how willing the U.S. is to attack, and how willing North Korea is to be attacked," he said.
"I don't think there's a lack of willingness on the U.S. side; I think it's 90 percent certain that it's there, but I think that when it comes down to whether North Korea is prepared to be attacked, I think that is something that they wish to avoid."
North Korea's army threatened a "merciless" response to any U.S. provocation, state news agency KCNA reported on Friday, adding that the administration of President Donald Trump had "entered the path of open threat and blackmail against the DPRK."
North Korea’s vice foreign minister Han Song Ryol told the Associated Press: "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. preemptive strike."
"Whatever comes from the U.S., we will cope with it. We are fully prepared to handle it," Han said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Goh Fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.