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A U.S. Marine soldier conducts the U.S.-South Korea joint Exercise Operation Pacific Reach in Pohang, South Korea, Tuesday, April 11, 2017. North Korea is vowing tough counteraction to any military moves that might follow the U.S. move to send the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its battle group to waters off the Korean Peninsula. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)
A U.S. Marine soldier conducts the U.S.-South Korea joint Exercise Operation Pacific Reach in Pohang, South Korea, Tuesday, April 11, 2017. North Korea is vowing tough counteraction to any military moves that might follow the U.S. move to send the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its battle group to waters off the Korean Peninsula. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

Chinese moves point to rising unease with North Korea Add to ...

President Donald Trump has for months warned that his patience for North Korea is running out – and laid the problem at Beijing’s feet.

“North Korea is looking for trouble,” he tweeted Tuesday morning. “If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them!”

He then explained the terms of a grand bargain he has proposed: If China acts on North Korea, “a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them.”

Read more: Crisis in North Korea: behind the escalating standoff in Northeast Asia

Related: South Korea warns of ‘greater provocations’ by North Korea as tensions rise

Now, as a U.S. aircraft carrier group sails toward the Korean peninsula and Pyongyang responds with threats of nuclear reprisal, there are new signals that China, too, is no longer prepared to abide Pyongyang’s race to develop an atomic weapon it can fit on to a long-range missile.

China has turned back coal shipments from North Korea, blocking a key source of revenue for Pyongyang, and sent its top nuclear negotiator to Seoul for five days this week to discuss North Korea, an abrupt shift from its previous efforts to punish and isolate South Korea over the installation of U.S. anti-missile technology.

It all suggests China’s long-standing support for North Korea is rapidly diminishing, after years of Pyongyang disregarding outside efforts to halt development of devastating new weapons.

“It’s possible, and American officials are certainly hoping, that China’s cost-benefit calculation is beginning to change; that China is beginning to incur real costs from the DPRK’s nuclear program and it’s becoming a Chinese problem,” said Jeff M. Smith, director of Asian Security Programs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.

North Korea refers to itself as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK.

Worry that North Korea will conduct another nuclear or missile test in time for the 105th birthday of Kim Il-sung, the first leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, has lent new urgency to international efforts. That birthday is April 15, and it coincides with meetings of the country’s Supreme People’s Assembly.

It has brought a new crush of tensions to the Korean peninsula, which has spent much of the past few decades whipsawing between relative peace and dire warnings of hostilities. Mr. Trump on Tuesday added to the rhetoric by calling the naval carrier group “an armada. Very powerful.” In an interview with Fox Business Network, he said: “We have submarines. Very powerful. Far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That I can tell you.”

Earlier on Tuesday, North Korea warned through state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun that it was prepared to unleash a vicious attack on U.S. targets using the small nuclear arsenal it has already developed. “Our revolutionary strong army is keenly watching every move by enemy elements with our nuclear sight focused on the U.S. invasionary bases not only in South Korea and the Pacific operation theatre but also in the U.S. mainland,” it said.

In Seoul, such intense rumours about a looming military clash spread online that military officials were forced to make calming statements on Tuesday, calling the talk of war “overblown.”

Meanwhile, “North Korea is, at least in its rhetoric, showing that it is willing to go not only to the brink of war but also to war,” said Jung Hoon Lee, an expert in North Korean nuclear history who is director of the Institute of Modern Korean Studies Yonsei University, as well as South Korea’s ambassador for human rights.

“We are getting very close to that threshold where there’s not going to be a whole lot of options left,” he said, suggesting either China can close an economic pincer on North Korea, or the Unites States will make good on its threats of military action.

Beijing has stuck to a position first espoused by Foreign Minister Wang Yi last month, when he argued that for North Korea to lay down its nuclear arms, the United States must also recognize and address Pyongyang’s concerns for its own security.

“No matter what happens, we have to stay committed to diplomatic means as a way to seek peaceful settlement,” Mr. Wang said after meetings with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. But, he warned, “the situation on the peninsula has arrived at a new crossroads” that could “lead to confronting conflicts.”

And voices inside China have begun to call for Beijing itself to consider harsher measures. A commentary published in the past week by the People’s Liberation Army-backed China Military Online expressed anger at North Korean nuclear tests, which have taken place not far from the Chinese border. Were radiation to leak, “China will employ all means available including the military means to strike back,” wrote Jin Hao, a military analyst, describing a reprisal that would include “attacks to DPRK nuclear facilities.” A fatal blow to Pyongyang’s nuclear program, he believes, would render it “obedient immediately.”

But the opposite could be true. If North Korea is attacked, it “is highly likely to strike back, targeting above all the Seoul area,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul. If that happens, “the most likely result is a second Korean War.”

For that reason, he sees threats of military action, including the sailing of the USS Carl Vinson carrier group into the western Pacific Ocean, as “essentially bluffing.”

The United States has sent potent military assets to the region many times before. In 2013, it dispatched a pair of guided-missile destroyers to waters near the Korean peninsula; fighter jets and bombers wing past North Korean airspace with some regularity. They have always left without firing a shot.

Any military attack would likely prompt a devastating cascade of consequences. If nuclear contamination were to drift to China it would embroil Beijing, while North Korea could strike South Korean nuclear power plants to reciprocate the devastation, said Jin Qiangyi, director of the Centre of North and South Korea Studies at Yanbian University.

“The whole peninsula would get stuck into a state they would have no way to deal with. So the U.S. needs to give a lot of thought to what it does,” he said. “So the situation is very intense, but it remains hard to say that it has reached a war of hostilities.”

Still, Prof. Lankov said, the calculations have changed now that the commander-in-chief is Donald Trump, a man who, like North Korea’s Mr. Kim, has a reputation for volatility.

“That’s the game the Americans are playing. They basically are capitalizing on the image of the current administration as unpredictable and somewhat irrational, on the assumption that maybe, just maybe, the North Koreans will be careful. Because God knows what the Americans are going to do,” Prof. Lankov said.

What happens in the next few days will form one test, he said. Pyongyang has for decades been tough to spook, and in normal times, Mr. Kim might conduct a military test to mark the April 15 birthday of his grandfather. This year, “it’s quite possible that he will decide to play it safe,” Prof. Lankov said. “Because it does look threatening.”

“We are getting very close to that threshold where there’s not going to be a whole lot of options left,” he said, suggesting either China can close an economic pincer on North Korea, or the Unites States will make good on its threats of military action.

A new study by Sayari Analytics, a Washington-based group that digs out financial information on illicit actors, said North Korean trade with Chinese firms made up 40 per cent of the Pyongyang’s hard currency earnings, with 300 Chinese companies exceeding $1-million in annual trade with the isolated country, South Korea’s Chosun Media reported.

Beijing, however, has historically been loath to act harshly on North Korea, fearing a regime collapse that would create a flood of refugees and potentially bring U.S. forces to its border. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last month argued that for North Korea to lay down its nuclear arms, the United States must also recognize and address Pyongyang’s concerns for its own security. He called on the United States to halt military exercises in the region.

“No matter what happens, we have to stay committed to diplomatic means as a way to seek peaceful settlement,” Mr. Wang said after meetings with Mr. Tillerson. But, he warned, “the situation on the peninsula has arrived at a new crossroads” that could “lead to confronting conflicts.”

With reporting by Yu Mei

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