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China Is Preparing for an Influx of North Korean Refugees, Report Says

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A Chinese county bordering North Korea is preparing for an influx of refugees, according to what appears to be a leaked document cited by the New York Times, revealing a rare acknowledgement that crisis or conflict could be on the horizon.

The Times reports that the internal document, apparently leaked from the state-owned telecoms firm China Mobile and circulated on social media, said a company manager had inspected five sites being built to accommodate refugees in early December.

The document says that China Mobile was asked to supply Internet services in the camp areas, located in three villages of northeast Changbai County and two other cities in Jilin province. Speaking anonymously, a local businessman told the Times that housing construction was already under way at several of the sites.

A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry told reporters he was unaware of the plan, according to the Times, but did not deny that such sites were being built. A company executive declined to discuss the issue, the Times reports.

An expert cited by the Times said making such contingency plans was “absolutely reasonable,” given Pyongyang’s intensifying efforts to develop nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. North Korea’s increasingly frequent tests have provoked Washington and set the region on edge.

“It is highly possible that there is a conflict between North Korea and the United States now,” Zhang Liangui, a professor of international strategic research at the Communist Party’s Central Party School, told the Times.

Read more: ‘North Korea Is the Biggest Threat to All Humankind.’ The U.S. Ambassador to China Talks to TIME

Beijing’s chief policy objective has long been to maintain stability on the peninsula, in order to avoid the very crisis it appears to now anticipate. For years this has meant exerting restrained economic pressure, such as enforcing some sanctions but declining to cut off commodities such as oil so as not to cause collapse.

Jilin province is already home to a large number of defectors and refugees from North Korea, and experts estimate that further instability or conflict could send as many as millions more across the Tumen River separating the two countries.

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