China continued moving tanks and armored vehicles and flying flights near North Korea this week as part of a military buildup in the northeastern part of the country that U.S. officials say is related to the crisis with North Korea.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, sought to play down the Chinese military buildup along the border with Beijing’s fraternal communist ally despite the growing danger of conflict following unprecedented threats by Pyongyang to attack the United States and South Korea with nuclear weapons.
According to U.S. officials with access to intelligence reports, both intelligence and Internet reports from the region over the past week revealed the modest military movements in the border region that began in mid-March and are continuing.
The buildup appears linked to North Korea’s March 30 announcement that it is in a “state of war” with South Korea after the United Nations imposed a new round of sanctions following the North’s Feb. 12 nuclear test and because of ongoing large-scale joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises.
Officials said one key military unit involved in the mobilization is the 190th Mechanized Infantry Brigade based in Benxi, Liaoning Province. The brigade is believed to be the PLA’s frontline combat unit that would respond to any regional conflict or refugee flows. Troops and tank movements also were reported in Dandong, in Liaoning Province.
Fighter jets were reported flying in larger numbers in Fucheng, Hebei Province, and in Zhangwu and Changchun, Liaoning Provinces.
One of China’s Russian-made Su-27 jets crashed on Sunday in Rongcheng, a city directly across the Yellow Sea from the Korean peninsula. The accident may have been part of the increased warplane activity related to the military mobilization, officials said.
The buildup likely serves two goals, the officials said. One is to bolster border security in case a conflict sends large numbers of refugees from the impoverished state into China.
U.S. officials also said there were signs of increased movement inside North Korea, specifically movement of road-mobile missile systems. One official said activity was seen at the long-range missile launch complex at Tongchang-ri on the west coast.
Pentagon press secretary George Little was asked about possible North Korean missile launches and said test flights were possible.
“We can’t rule out the possibility, obviously, that they may conduct some kind of tests or engage in some kind of provocative behavior that would cause problems,” he said. “We hope that doesn’t happen, but if history’s any guide, it could. So we really need to be ready to respond, and that’s our goal.”