Authorities in the northwestern Chinese province of Liaoning issued an environmental alert in response to escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula and ahead of Pyongyang's attempted test launch of a missile on Saturday, RFA has learned.
An emergency notice issued by the environmental protection department in Liaoning's port city of Dalian, a city of some 10 million 300 kilometers (180 miles) from the North Korean border, called on all environmental agencies to prepare for an emergency response to "any nuclear or chemical environmental incident in North Korea."
"[Any] North Korean nuclear and chemical environment incident, may have a negative impact on our country's safety and potentially damage the health of our people," the April 14 notice, which was leaked online, warned.
"Higher-level departments have therefore initiated emergency measures in our city, and a state of alert with immediate effect, according to the Liaoning Provincial Emergency Plan prepared by the North Korean Nuclear Environmental Group," the notice, signed by the Dalian environmental protection bureau, said.
"All relevant work units must now enter emergency response preparations and begin emergency duties."
It was not clear if other Chinese cities close to North Korea had taken similar measures as Dalian, which is directly ruled from Beijing.
An official who answered the phone on Monday at the Dalian environmental protection bureau declined to comment.
"You'll have to call the main office and ask them," the official said.
But repeated calls to the main office rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.
A Dalian surnamed Sun said local people had heard nothing of any emergency alert status.
"Nope, never heard about this. I haven't seen any notices up in our neighborhood," Sun said. "I'm worried, because this is people's health we're talking about."
"Dalian is next in line after [the border city of] Dandong," she said. "Of course I'm worried. We're so close."
Saying little, but mobilizing
Beijing-based rights activist Zha Jianguo said the ruling Chinese Communist Party may be saying little about any threat from North Korea in public, but it is mobilizing behind the scenes.
"It's pretty normal for China to make these sorts of preparations, regardless of the potential threat," Zha said. "It's just in case."
News of the alert emerged as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said the "era of strategic patience is over" with North Korea, and called on China to use its "extraordinary levers" to step up the pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program.
South Korea and the United States agreed on Monday to take "punitive action" on any provocation from the North, South Korean prime minister Hwang Kyo-ahn told a joint news conference with Pence.
Earlier, Pence, who visited the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on Monday, said the North's failed missile test was "a provocation," and has said the U.S. will use whatever means are necessary to protect ally South Korea and stabilize the peninsula.
Back in China, veteran Hunan journalist Xiao Jiansheng said the environmental protection bureau was unlikely to have been acted on the basis of actual intelligence, but that tensions are running high between Beijing and its isolated Stalinist neighbor, which relies heavily on Chinese economic aid.
"This is definitely a question of acting on a probability, because just recently Chinese special envoy Wu Dawei wanted to visit North Korea, but they refused to receive him," Xiao said.
"The North is unlikely to engage with China, with a lot of tensions in the relationship," he said. "It's also unlikely that the North would ever share any information [about its planned activities] with China."
China and Russia recently sent intelligence-gathering vessels to follow the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier as it travels toward the Korean peninsula, Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun reported at the weekend.
The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and its strike group are believed to be in waters around the East China Sea and are expected to arrive around April 25.
Major threat seen
Seoul and Washington are in talks to pursue a joint military exercise involving the aircraft carrier, local media reports said on Monday.
The move comes amid fears that North Korea may conduct a sixth nuclear test or an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch in commemoration of the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People's Army on April 25th.
North Korea paraded an apparently new ICBM in a massive show of military strength in Pyongyang on Saturday, to mark the 105th anniversary of late supreme leader Kim Il Sung's birth.
Military analyst Huang Dong said the hardware on display indicated that the North now had more than one or two of such missiles ready to deploy.
"They have already formed a strike force ready for deployment, and it seems they have more than one or two of them," Huang told RFA.
"This is a pretty major threat to neighboring countries," he said.
But Terence Yeung, of the department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said tensions between the U.S. and North Korea are nothing new.
"Yes, the situation between the U.S. and North Korea is pretty tense, but North Korea has always posed a tough problem, and I personally don't see any particularly new developments," Yeung told RFA.
"As for the future ... without any major shifts in policy from either side, I think we are looking at a stalemate. It's not going to be easy to end this stand-off," he said.
On Sunday, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by phone to "exchange views" following the failed missile launch, Chinese state media reported.
"The successful meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago estate has set a constructive tone, defined the direction and made a plan for the development of bilateral ties," the Global Times newspaper quoted Yang as saying.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lau Siu-fung and Dai Weisen for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.