World News

China paper suggests spy motive for NKorea border killings

BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korean border troops fired on a group of Chinese citizens last week possibly because they were suspected of being South Korean spies, a Chinese newspaper said on Wednesday, citing officials from the reclusive North.

The border guards shot at the Chinese nationals crossing the river border near the northeastern Chinese city of Dandong on Friday, killing three and wounding a fourth, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday, prompting a rare complaint from China, the North’s only major ally.

The report in the Global Times newspaper said North Korea had “raised its vigilance” in the wake of tensions with South Korea over the sinking of a South Korean navy ship, the Cheonan, in March. Seoul says the ship was hit by a North Korean torpedo.

China’s 1,415-km (880-mile) border with its communist neighbour is guarded by troops on both sides, but the river dividing them is often narrow and vulnerable to smugglers and refugees passing from the North into much richer China.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the people were suspected of smuggling. But the Global Times, a popular tabloid, said North Korea’s explanation was that its troops may have believed the border crossers were spies.

“The North Korean side explained that because of the Cheonan incident, they have raised their vigilance,” the paper said, citing Chinese border authorities. The paper did not name its sources.

“The Chinese border residents spoke Korean and were wearing camouflage clothing, and the North Korean soldiers may have believed they were South Korean spies and so opened fire.”

Many Chinese residents near the border with North Korea are ethnic Koreans.

The North Korean authorities said they were willing to compensate the families of those killed and “hoped that this incident will not hurt Chinese-North Korean relations”, the Global Times said.

The deaths may stir some Chinese irritation about Beijing’s support for its secretive neighbour, but is unlikely to change Chinese policy, which is committed to shoring up the poor and isolated North.

The North’s secretive leader, Kim Jong-il, visited China early in May, on a rare trip abroad.

The deaths come at a time of high tension over the sinking of the South Korean corvette ship, killing 46 sailors.

China, North Korea’s biggest trade partner and only real ally, has declined to publicly join international condemnation of Pyongyang, saying it is still assessing the evidence and wants all sides to show restraint.

South Korea has asked the U.N. Security Council to act on the incident. As a permanent member of the council, China has the power to veto any resolutions or statements, but it has not said clearly how it will respond to Seoul’s demand.

Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim