One of China's top experts on North Korean affairs warned yesterday of a better than 70 per cent chance of war on the Korean Peninsula as tensions continued to rise and South Korean and US forces raised their alert status.
The remarks by Zhang Liangui, a professor of international strategic research at the Communist Party's Central Party School, came as mainland travel agencies cancelled tours to North Korea.
"There is a 70 to 80 per cent chance that a war will happen because North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may want to use this opportunity to force a reunification of the Korean Peninsula," Zhang said.
Pyongyang has stepped up threats to attack South Korea and the United States in recent weeks, with Seoul saying that Pyongyang could launch a missile test "at any time from now". North Korea will observe several anniversaries in the next few days, including the birthday of the country's founder Kim Il-sung on Monday, which could provide a pretext for more military displays.
Zhang said that even if a conflict is avoided there was an urgent need for the countries involved to avoid similar chaos in the future and negotiate a removal of nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula.
"The longer we delay fixing it, the more difficult the situation will become," he said. "China needs to seriously consider how to tackle the problem."
Relations with Pyongyang remain a controversial issue in China, as some in the party believe Beijing's continued support of its long-time ally can offset US influence in the region. Others argue that helping to de-escalate the situation by taking a tougher line could increase Beijing's international clout.
Deng Yuwen , a deputy editor at the Study Times, a newspaper affiliated with the Central Party School, was suspended over a February Financial Times article he wrote calling for China to abandon North Korea and press for reunification of the peninsula.
Beijing has not said what it has done to implement UN sanctions, but customs said yesterday that China's first-quarter exports to North Korea were down 13.8 per cent to US$720 million.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the China-North Korea border was being policed, but added that tour groups had stopped travel on their own.
Travel agencies in the border city of Dandong said they received a notice from local travel authorities yesterday to suspend tours to North Korea.
"The tours will only be resumed once conditions are stable," one local travel agent said.
A staff member of another travel agency said they had cancelled tours because "many people have expressed worries about their safety".