BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korean border guards shot and killed three Chinese suspected smugglers and wounded a fourth last week, prompting a complaint from Pyongyang’s only major ally, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday.
China formally complained to Pyongyang, and the incident was being investigated, ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a regular news briefing in the Chinese capital.
“In the early morning on June 4, North Korea’s border defense troops fired at some citizens of Dandong in Liaoning province, because they were suspected of illegally crossing the border to trade,” Qin said.
“Three people were killed, and one was wounded.”
Pyongyang has a heavily militarized southern border which sees occasional exchanges of fire, and a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier in 2008 while at a resort in the North.
But attacks on Chinese citizens are rare. The Sino-Korean border, in China’s northeast, is quiet and fairly porous, with a steady flow of refugees and traders coming over to escape food shortages or profit from them.
Beijing tolerates the cross-border traffic in part because it is fearful that a collapse of the regime would turn that trickle into a flood, and could one day mean South Korean or even U.S. troops stationed on its border.
It also provides support including grains and energy for the shaky regime. The loss of Chinese life in the shooting may stir up discontent about Beijing’s policies toward its secretive neighbor, although it is unlikely to drastically change government policy.
Qin said China was seeking more information.
“The Chinese side have paid great attention to this incident, and immediately made solemn representations to the North Korean side. At present this case is in the process of being investigated and dealt with further,” Qin said.
Any further information would be released later, he added.
The deaths come at a time of high tension over the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, with the loss of 46 lives. After an international investigation, Seoul said Pyongyang had attacked the corvette Cheonan.
China, North Korea’s biggest trade partner and only real ally, has declined to publicly join international condemnation of Pyongyang, saying it was still assessing the evidence.
But Beijing is in an awkward position, as the findings of the investigation have been accepted by its neighbors in the region, and South Korea has also referred the North to the U.N. Security Council, where China has a veto-wielding permanent seat.
China fought alongside the North against the United States and the South during the 1950-53 Korean War. (Reporting by Liu Zhen and Chris Buckley; Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Benjamin Kang Lim and Alex Richardson)