Breaching a divide drives North Korea, China apart

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Breaching a divide drives North Korea, China apart

DASU, China
In the early morning hours of February 19, according to residents and police of this Chinese border village, a North Korean soldier crossed the frozen Tumen River, cut the phone and power lines to a farmhouse, slipped inside to where an elderly couple were sleeping and slit their throats.
“He robbed the house and disappeared back across the border,” says Bang Kil-sub, who lives with his young family less than 100 meters (yards) from the murder scene. “The killer knew who they were ― the old couple had been doing business across the river.” Mr. Bang nods toward a village on the North Korean side. “It was so well-planned, we’re certain he was in the military. If they had not traded with the North Koreans, they might still be alive today.”
Photos of the gruesome scene, showing the blood-soaked corpses, and details of the murder are displayed outside border police posts in Yanbian ― the Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin province, which borders North Korea, and where Dasu is located.
In one week in January alone, four separate violent incidents in this area involving North Korean soldiers were reported. On January 23, a North Korean border guard opened fire with an AK-47 assault rifle on residents in Banshi village during an attempted robbery. He then slashed the throat of a local man who survived the attack. The guard escaped back across the border. Four days later, a 19-year-old North Korean soldier armed with an AK-47 and 120 rounds of ammunition was arrested by Chinese border guards in Jingxin village. Two days after that, an ethnic Korean Chinese couple were robbed and murdered in Laoping village. On January 30, five North Koreans confessed to committing 21 armed robberies, following their capture in Chaoyangchuan, about 80 kilometers (48 miles) inside the Chinese border.
That was the start of what has been one of the most violent years in this area, Yanbian police say. The North Koreans are getting bolder, too. Just two months ago, four North Korean soldiers tried to rob a bank at gunpoint in the city of Tumen. “They were caught by a passing Chinese Army patrol,” says Xing Guomin, a civil engineer, who works for the city. “There is a huge military presence here because of border security.”
The plight of North Korean asylum-seekers along the Chinese frontier has been brought to the world's attention, but little has been reported about the growing number of crimes in the border hamlets committed by heavily-armed North Korean soldiers. The violence has added to the woes of China’s two million ethnic Koreans ― the people who are most often the crime victims.
Perhaps the most serious case happened two years ago, on August 31, 2001, when a North Korean man living illegally in China killed two Chinese policemen and a soldier in Longjing city, 40 kilometers from the border. “He had lived here quietly for about five years when two policemen came to check his residence card,” a former neighbor of the man says. “He was married to a local Korean woman and probably would have been allowed to stay. But he thought the police were going to send him back to North Korea, so he stabbed them both to death.”
The man was later captured during a struggle in which a Chinese border guard was stabbed to death. Said by many residents of the area to once have been a North Korean special forces operative, the man was executed in the Jilin provincial capital of Changchun. His death was the first known public execution of an illegal North Korean in China, according to local authorities, who say North Koreans entering China illegally are usually repatriated, and on their forced return, face jail or capital punishment.
In the city of Tumen ― popular with South Korean tourists who come here to get a glimpse of the North ― a pink detention center surrounded by a fence spiked with razor wire and machine-gun towers holds up to 500 illegal North Koreans. “Every afternoon, the police drive about a dozen illegals over the bridge and deliver them to the North Koreans,” says the owner of a souvenir shop here, pointing toward the Friendship Bridge, which links Tumen with Namyang in North Korea.
The problem of illegal North Koreans in China has become an international issue, with the dismal state of human rights in the North often cited as the reason China should ease its crackdown. China says the illegals threaten border security, a concern underscored by the reported deployment last month of 150,000 Chinese troops along the North Korean border. The buildup coincides with the approaching winter and another expected flood of illegals across the Tumen River, which is about 20 meters wide at its narrowest point.
The troop deployment is the latest effort by Beijing in its two-year-old “Strike Hard” campaign to forcibly repatriate an estimated 150,000 illegal North Koreans. China's allies against a feared inundation of illegals are dug into the opposite river bank. “All those foxholes are linked by tunnels,” says the Chinese pilot of our boat. “They are all manned by North Korean soldiers who lay in wait and shoot anyone who tries to cross.”

As our vessel skims across the water and closes on a North Korean post, a barrage of rocks rains over the bow. The uniformed men seem strong enough to shoot their weapons. Asked the last time he heard them firing shots, our boat driver has no answer. “That’s just a story they tell South Korean tourists,” says the owner of the souvenir shop. “I’ve never seen nor heard of anyone being shot in the four years I’ve been working here. I see North Korean kids over here all the time begging for food or money.”
“One North Korean soldier came over here last month to eat and drink in a local restaurant,” the shop owner says. “He got drunk and greedy and decided to rob it. A waitress called the police and he was arrested.”
Mr. Xing, the engineer, works on a construction project that is so close to North Korean guards that they regularly shout over for cigarettes. “They’re hungry,” he says. “Even though some of them cause trouble, China should continue to provide aid to North Korea.”
Scanning the river, Mr. Xing recalls his father who fought in the Korean War. Pointing toward the Friendship Bridge painted in two colors, red for China and blue for North Korea, he says: “That span was built to mark a friendship forged in blood. But do you know why the Chinese side of the bridge is shorter than the North Korean side? It is because China made a sacrifice ― just like it did during the Korean War.”
Fifty years after China lost an estimated one million troops defending the North, that bond is under severe strain, not only from Pyeongyang’s threats to forge ahead with its nuclear arms program, but also from the resentment caused by the trouble along the border. “The North Koreans used to come here looking for food,” says Lee Myong-ja, who lives with her husband and 17-year-old son on a small apple orchard on the border near Sanhe. “Now they kill us for money. We’re all living in fear.”
Sitting on the floor of the family's simple, two-room farmhouse, she leans into a gentle breeze blowing through the open doors and windows. It is hot on the border in the summer. But as soon as the sun sets, Mrs. Lee and her family will bolt themselves inside their home.
“Just a few weeks ago, a North Korean went into a neighboring house where an old woman lived and stabbed her. She screamed so loud that people came running from everywhere and scared him off. But no one could catch him. They are so skilled and fast ― they are all trained in the army,” Mrs. Lee says, referring to the 10 years in the military North Korean men are required to serve. “If they didn’t kill people, no one would care. But we’re so scared of them now, no one wants to help. We hate the North Koreans.”
Koreans, such as the Lee family, are now loathe to aid their blood brothers and sisters across the border. The Lees, like nearly all Korean Chinese, trace their roots back to the waves of North Koreans who crossed into China during the Japanese colonial occupation and the Korean War.
“Those bastards!” swears Chul Nam-yung, sitting inside her small, Sanhe restaurant located not far from the Lees’ house. “Last spring, a North Korean man went to the door of a local Korean couple begging for rice. They didn’t have any, so they went next door to borrow some. After they fed the man, he stabbed them both to death. There have been so many incidents like that around here lately.”
Back in Dasu, Mr. Bang tells of his own fears for his young children and wife. His dread seems incongruous with this village’s setting, an idyllic valley along a fast-flowing bend in the Tumen River. Green mountains rise steeply on two sides, dotted with the red of ripening apples. Rice and yellow wheat bow in the breeze. Just over the river lies a North Korean village, a source of extreme anxiety.
“No one wants to live here anymore,” Mr. Bang says as three border policemen in green uniforms walk through the front door. They demand to know what two visitors are doing in the village. “That’s what it’s like here now,” Mr. Bang says apologetically. “Eight policemen moved into our village after the murders, but it has not helped us much. We moved here 14 years ago to grow apples, but the harvest will be poor this year. All the apple flowers froze in the spring. Death has moved into our village.”


by Cortlan Bennett
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