SEOUL, South Korea — Tour companies on the biggest border crossing between North Korea and China have said they've been ordered to suspend trips in response to Pyongyang's war rhetoric.
That move came just ahead of a Wednesday decision by South Korean and US forces to raise their alert status to "vital threat," ahead of an expected North Korean missile test. Tensions on the Korean peninsula are wound tight during a five-day buildup to a key anniversary.
The North last week told foreign diplomats in Pyongyang they had until April 10 to consider evacuation, fueling speculation of a launch between Wednesday and April 15 birthday celebrations for late founder Kim Il Sung.
North Korea on Tuesday warned foreigners in the South to "work out measures for evacuation." At the same time, Japan deployed three Patriot missile-defense systems around Tokyo.
Experts in Seoul agree the defense ministry's warning that Pyongyang could test a mid-range Musudan missile any day affirmed common knowledge: Having raised its war rhetoric to a level unprecedented in the past decade, North Korea must somehow back up its words.
Since the missiles are deployed on the peninsula's east coast, a missile test in the direction of Japan would have maximum effect getting the attention that the Kim regime wants.
In China, the authorities in the northeastern city of Dandong, which borders North Korea, reportedly told at least five tour agencies to halt overland tourism into the country on Wednesday.
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A travel agent told Reuters:
"All [tourist] travel to North Korea has been stopped from today, and I've no idea when it will restart."
NKNews reported late Tuesday that a Chinese tour company called "Explore North Korea," based in Dandong, had stopped organizing trips after a lengthy meeting with North Korean officials.
NK News quoted Leonid Petrov, a researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra, as saying that move showed a "logical" approach to escalating a feeling of crisis on the peninsula.
"War zones are incompatible with joint industrial parks, travel groups or even with foreign embassies. Pyongyang wants to convince the world that Korea will soon be engulfed in the flames of nuclear inferno. The scary truth is that this can really happen regardless of who makes the first shot."
However, an official at the Dandong Border Office said the border remained open to commercial traffic.
China is North Korea's sole major ally and the provider of the vast majority of its trade and aid, with most of the business passing through Dandong.
And state-controlled CCTV News said the Chinese government had not issued orders to shut down tourism to North Korea, Reuters wrote.
And NK News cited western tour operators "Koryo Tours" and "Young Pioneer Tours" as saying they had no plans to cancel their planned tours.
Quartz magazine suggested that any move by the Chinese would demonstrate Beijing’s displeasure with its ally rather than a defensive response to hostilities by North Korea.
Over the weekend, Chinese President Xi Jinping condemned North Korea's behavior in a statement that — while it didn't name North Korea — was clearly targeted at China's "little brother."
No country "should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain," Xi said.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.