China says N. Korean border guards killed 3 Chinese civilians

By Keith Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; 9:51 AM

SHANGHAI -- North Korean border guards shot and killed three Chinese civilians and wounded another in an incident at the border last week, China's foreign ministry said Tuesday, prompting an unusual and public diplomatic protest from Beijing to its erstwhile ally, Pyongyang.

The shooting comes as China is under intense U.S. and United Nations pressure to join international condemnation of North Korea for its role in the sinking of a South Korean naval warship March 26. The attack left 46 South Korean sailors dead. China is hermetic North Korea's principal ally, propping up President Kim Jong Il's regime with desperately needed food aid and investment, and China's leaders have been loath to criticize Kim.

Foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang, briefing reporters in Beijing, said the shooting incident occurred in the early morning hours of June 4, around the northeastern town of Dandong, when the Chinese civilians crossed into North Korea to engage in illicit trading, common along the 880-mile border.

South Korean and Japanese media reported that the Chinese were in a boat on the Yalu River attempting to smuggle copper from Sinuiju in North Korea, when they were fired on by a North Korean ship.

Qin said China was investigating the incident and "attached great importance to it." He added that China had "immediately made solemn representations" to North Korea.

Chinese analysts on North Korea said that while cross-border disputes occur regularly, often involving livestock, a shooting of Chinese civilians was rare -- and the fact that the Chinese government chose to publicize it was even more unusual.

"It's a big deal," said Zhang Liangui, a professor specializing in North Korea at the International Strategy Institute of the Central Party School. "In all my years of research, I don't remember ever hearing similar news, that Chinese residents were killed by North Korean soldiers."

"Chinese people will be shocked to hear this news," Zhang added. "This will affect Chinese people's views of North Korea."

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Remnin University in Beijing, said "publicizing this incident itself shows China is unhappy about it."

Shi predicted relations would likely suffer because of the incident. Shi said the Chinese government has shown patience with North Korea's erratic behavior in the past, but that patience was already wearing thin.

"The Chinese government will be unable to swallow this insult, and the public won't agree even if it swallowed its anger," he said. "The Chinese government is very unhappy about this shooting thing."

China and North Korea have a long friendship, exemplified in the 1950s when Chinese soldiers went to assist North Korea during the war on the peninsula. China has lately been helping with food aid and trade to the starving nation. Mao Zedong famously called the relationship "as close as lips and teeth."

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