North Korea on Friday told foreign embassies to consider the possibility of evacuation if tensions with South Korea and the U.S. continued to escalate.

This was reported by China’s State-run Xinhua news agency even as the South Korean media said the North had loaded two intermediate-range missiles on to mobile launchers and “hidden them” on its eastern coast.

The report, issued by the Seoul-based Yonhap news agency, citing military sources, aggravated the tensions in the Korean peninsula following the North’s recent warning that it would target U.S. bases in South Korea and Guam in the Pacific in retaliation for recent military drills. The U.S. on Thursday responded by dispatching advanced missile interceptor systems to its base in Guam.

On Friday, South Korea also mobilised destroyers equipped with advanced systems to monitor the situation on the North’s eastern coast, Yonhap reported.

The news agency said South Korean intelligence officials who were monitoring the situation estimated the North’s Musudan missiles — believed to be mounted on the launchers — could fly between 3,000 and 4,000 km and reach U.S. bases on Guam.

Analysts have, however, remained divided on whether the North will take the drastic step of following through on its increasingly fiery rhetoric. While the North’s warnings have been more fiery than usual, the reclusive State has in the past issued similar threats that eventually only amounted to empty rhetoric seemingly directed to a domestic audience.

In Beijing, recent moves by Pyongyang have evoked concern. China, which is the North’s only ally and biggest source of aid, has called for calm, with officials here in recent days meeting with diplomats from the U.S., South Korea and Japan to discuss the situation.

China has faced a tightrope walk, with calls from the North’s worried neighbours to exert greater influence on its ally. Chinese officials and analysts however point out that Beijing’s influence with the North is limited, with the regime appearing to be led by its own domestic calculus.

Zhu Zhangping, an international relations scholar, in a commentary in the Communist Party-run Global Times on Friday emphasised the difficult diplomatic balancing act faced by Beijing.

“What China should do now is to protect North Korea by offering nuclear umbrella just as the U.S. does to Japan and South Korea, but also force it to accept China’s advice to abandon nuclear programs. If a fourth nuclear test is conducted, China will face greater risks than any other country,” he wrote, and added: “North Korea still carries strategic importance to China … North Korea still acts as a buffer. If North Korea collapses and Kim is replaced by a pro-U.S. regime, it will pave the way for the US to redeploy its forces in South Korea to China's northeast border, which will be a big security danger when the US and China lack military mutual trust.”

The same newspaper in an editorial said China should not intervene if war — a prospect still deemed unlikely by most analysts who do not expect the sabre-rattling to spiral out of control — breaks out.

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