China blames North Korea for killing three of its citizens

Beijing today delivered an unusual criticism to North Korea over the killing of three Chinese citizens. North Korea is heavily dependent on ally China for financial and food aid.

By , Correspondent

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China accused North Korea border guards of shooting and killing three Chinese citizens and wounding one near the two countries' border last week.

The incident could strain relations between the isolated "hermit kingdom" and China, North Korea's strongest ally and aid donor, even as Beijing comes under pressure to take a stronger stance against Pyongyang for its role in the sinking of a South Korean warship on March 26 that killed 46 sailors.

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A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Tuesday that China issued a formal protest over the shooting incident, which occurred near the Chinese border town of Dandong, according to the BBC. The BBC noted that "it is unusual for China to make any public criticism of its neighbor."

Bloomberg reported that the four Chinese citizens were shot inside North Korean territory, close to the border. A Seoul-based group of North Korean defectors called "North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity" first reported the incident on June 4 and said the four Chinese citizens were trying to smuggle copper from North Korea, according to Bloomberg.

The deaths, which North Korea Intellectuals said occurred on the night of June 3, came as North Korea tightened border security, the group said.

Television footage shot by Bloomberg on June 4 at the Tumen River Bridge border crossing, at the other end of China’s 1,415 kilometer (880 mile) border with North Korea showed several men running across the bridge looking over their shoulders back toward North Korea. It wasn’t possible to ask them about their behavior.

In other news likely to strain North Korea-China relations, the South Korean news website Chosun Ilbo reported that Chinese authorities arrested a North Korean government official for drug trafficking. A 33-year-old North Korean official surnamed Rim was detained in March by Chinese authorities, according to a South Korean activist, Do Hee-yoon, quoted by the newspaper.

"North Korean agents targeting South Korea have been arrested before for their involvement in drug trafficking, but it's unprecedented for a senior government trade official to be arrested for direct involvement," Do said. "The Dandong Customs Office has mobilized customs officials from Dalian to probe all aspects of North Korea-China trade."

According to Do, Chinese officials arrested four drug dealers in the northeast province of Liaoning, and found out from them that a North Korean was the "key figure" in their drug ring, the Chosun Ilbo said. The bureau reportedly confiscated 2 kg of top-quality methamphetamine Rim had hidden in a kimchi container when he traveled from Sinuiju to Dandong.

China has been in the hot-seat over its cozy relations with Pyongyang, after declining to join its Asian neighbors and the West in condemning North Korea for the sinking of the Cheonan warship.

A multinational probe concluded last month that a North Korean torpedo sank the South Korean ship. President Lee Myung-bak has not minced words as he has sought to bring China around to the South Korean view, telling Premier Wen Jiabao bluntly that “China needs to play an active role in making North Korea admit its wrongdoing,” as The Christian Science Monitor reported.

But China has reacted cautiously, publicly calling only for all sides to exercise restraint, according to Agence France-Presse.

AFP reported Tuesday that South Korea would not seek further sanctions against North Korea at the United Nations, but would ask the UN Security Council to take unspecified "measures" against Pyongyang over the Cheonan incident.

Analysts at a forum held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., last month said that China is wary of taking a harder line with its neighbor because of its desire for regional stability and its fear of a wave of North Korean refugees in the event of a crisis.

"China harbors numerous suspicions about South Korean and US intentions toward the North," CSIS analysts wrote in a report, and "instability in North Korea, whether triggered by internal or external forces, would quickly affect the stability, prosperity and development of China's northeastern provinces."

North Korea is heavily reliant on China for food and financial aid. “Without Chinese aid North Korea cannot survive,” Chen Fengjun, a North Korea expert at Peking University’s School of International Studies, told the Monitor last month during Kim Jong-il's secret visit to China.

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