A spate of murders by North Koreans inside China’s border is prompting some residents to abandon their homes, testing China’s ability to manage both the 880-mile (1,400-kilometer) shared frontier and its relationship with the reclusive nation.
The violence reflects a growing desperation among soldiers, including border guards, since Kim Jong Un took over as supreme leader in Pyongyang three years ago. As well as seeking food, they are entering China to steal money.
“Bribes were one of the key sources of income for these guards to survive, but after Kim Jong Un came to power and tightened controls, it became difficult for them to take bribes, thus the criminal deviations,” said Kang Dong Wan, a professor of international relations at Busan’s Dong-a University in South Korea.
The murder of four residents of a border village last month prompted China to file a complaint with North Korea, risking tensions between the two allies in contrast to Kim’s recent overtures toward South Korea. Kim defied China in 2013 to conduct North Korea’s third nuclear test, and in the same year executed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who had promoted commercial ties with China.
In the December incident, a North Korean soldier shot four residents of Nanping, a border village of about 300 in northeastern Jilin province. Around 20 villagers have been murdered in Nanping by North Koreans in recent years, a senior local official said in an interview.
Some residents are leaving the village, located within sight of an unnamed North Korean army base, said the official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.
In the winter months the Tumen river outside of Nanping freezes over, allowing North Koreans to walk across, and it is common for soldiers to enter the village to demand food, the official said by phone on Jan. 8. The December attack followed the murder of three members of the same family in September.
“Barbed wires separating China and North Korea are as good as non-existent, with some parts of the border river being so shallow that you only risk getting yourself wet from the knee down when you wade across it,” Kang said. “The geographic extensiveness of the border also makes it very difficult to maintain a complete watch.”
North Korea has suffered from food shortages and as many as 1.1 million people died during the famines of the 1990s, according to South Korean estimates. The country’s elite and the military tend to be better supplied with food, though distribution to more remote areas has deteriorated, said Kwon Tae Jin, who researches the North Korean food situation at the GS&J Institute in Seoul.
“Military units in fringe areas or with less influence also get less food,” Kwon said. “This will get worse. It is estimated about 2 million North Koreans are still unable to feed themselves properly even though the days of them starving to death are over.”
About 70 percent of North Koreans struggle to secure food supplies, although the number is forecast to decline to 40 percent by 2024 due to low projected population growth, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said last June in a report. North Korea is “the most persistently food-insecure” Asian country after Afghanistan, it said.
In the September attack, a North Korean civilian entered Nanping and bludgeoned three family members to death to steal 500 yuan ($81), said 34-year-old Yong Weiliang, whose brother-in-law was one of the victims.
“The village officials told me the North Korean man was later caught by soldiers at the border,” Yong said by phone. The village government gave him 3,000 yuan in compensation, he said.
The North Korea-China border stretches from the Yalu River in the west through Mount Paektu and along the Tumen River in the remote east, where Nanping is located. Dandong is the largest city on the Chinese side of the border and is a major thoroughfare for trade between the two countries, which flows by road across the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge.
A new suspension bridge that was set to open last year ends at a ramp surrounded by farm fields and construction sites in North Korea, Google Earth imagery taken Sept. 25 shows. The Oct. 30 opening of the three-kilometer-long bridge was delayed indefinitely, the state-run Global Times said Oct. 31 on its Chinese-language website.
“The relationship between China and North Korea was abnormal in 2014 and is unlikely to see a recovery this year,” Yan Xuetong, Director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, told reporters today in Beijing, citing North Korea’s nuclear pursuit as an obstacle for improved ties.
— With assistance by Keith Zhai, and Sam Kim