China called on the U.S. and North Korea on Friday to drop the bellicose rhetoric and back away from a potential conflict that would devastate the peninsula.
"We urge all sides to no longer engage in mutual provocation and threats, whether through words or deeds, and don't push the situation to the point where it can't be turned around and gets out of hand," said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, according to state news agency Xinhua.
"The United States and South Korea and North Korea are engaging in tit for tat, with swords drawn and bows bent, and there have been storm clouds gathering," Wang said as the U.S. carrier Carl Vinson and its battle group approached Korean waters and North Korea warned of a pre-emptive strike.
"If they let war break out on the peninsula, they must shoulder that historical culpability and pay the corresponding price for this," Wang said. His remarks followed a phone call Wednesday between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump in which Xi urged restraint in U.S. attempts to rein in North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
China also renewed demands for the U.S. and South Korea to reverse the decision to place the U.S. Army's THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile system south of Seoul. China views the THAAD system as a provocation and a threat to its own national security.
Trump has called on China to use its influence with the North to prevent another nuclear test or missile launch and also said that the U.S. could take action if China does not.
Trump tweeted Thursday, "I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will!"
At the Pentagon on Thursday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said, "In regards to North Korea, we are working with international partners in order to defuse the situation, but the bottom line is North Korea has got to change its behavior -- that is an agreed position among the international community nations that are working together on this."
Despite China's plea, North Korea Vice Minister Han Song-ryol said of the U.S., "We will go to war if they choose." He charged that the U.S. had adopted "a more vicious and aggressive" posture under Trump.
Han made his remarks to an Associated Press reporter, one of more than 100 foreign journalists who flew to Pyongyang on an Air China flight to witness massive celebrations to mark the 105th anniversary Saturday of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Un's grandfather and founder of the North Korean state.
North Korea often uses such occasions for demonstrations of military might. Han said that whether North Korea conducts another nuclear test, which would be the sixth in recent years, would be "something that our headquarters decides."
He added, "At a time and at a place where the headquarters deems necessary, it will take place."
Han also warned of a possible pre-emptive strike to deter the U.S. and South Korea. "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. Whatever comes from the U.S., we will cope with it. We are fully prepared to handle it."
In Seoul, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea that tensions with the North had reached "a new level of seriousness."
"The compass that will help us navigate these turbulent waters is the ROK [Republic of Korea]-U.S. alliance, much as it has done for the past six decades," Yun said.
In a sign of the mounting tensions on the peninsula, Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces-Korea and the 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, earlier this week canceled a scheduled trip to Washington to testify before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees.
"All decisions regarding the schedules of [U.S. Forces-Korea] leadership are based on our alliance priority to maintain readiness at all times," Col. Robert Manning, a spokesman for Brooks, said in a statement.
South Korean analysts speculated that the U.S. would be deterred from its own pre-emptive strike against the North by the presence in the South of large numbers of U.S. citizens.
"I think a pre-emptive strike [by the U.S.] is possible in words but impossible in reality," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Dongguk University, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency. He said the U.S. is unlikely to put at risk the 200,000 U.S. citizens residing in South Korea.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, had a similar viewpoint. "Chances of any ultimate measure like a pre-emptive strike are very low," he said. "In the case of such military action, the U.S. will have to evacuate its nationals in South Korea first."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.