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“In recent years, the Chinese have gone out of their way to let the North Koreans know that China will not see the treaty as operative in the event that North Korea provokes or attacks South Korea,” said Scott A. Snyder, who heads the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

While most foreign policy analysts in Washington cautioned against the notion that a military confrontation is imminent or likely, some are quick to point out how real the possibility is that the situation could devolve rapidly.

“The danger here is that South Korea, with U.S. moral support, retaliates and then North Korea feels that it needs to counter-retaliate; China doesn’t control it and so it’s a vicious circle,” said Richard C. Bush, who served as an intelligence officer in Asia during the 1990s and now heads the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Susan Crabtree and Shaun Waterman contributed to this report.