A North Korean Defector Murdered Four Chinese Villagers as He Fled
Beijing is pissed
On the morning of Dec. 27, a North Korean soldier fleeing his country crossed into China … and went on a violent rampage.
He raided the homes of several villagers and killed four people—including an ethnic Korean couple—and stole food and cash. By nightfall, Chinese authorities tracked down the culprit and shot him in the stomach.
The deserter survived and is in a Chinese hospital. Beijing confirmed the incident on Jan. 5 and expressed deep displeasure with North Korean authorities.
Border incidents like this are rare. It appears that Communist Party officials intend for the killer to face justice in China—and will not repatriate the young soldier.
The killings also come at a bad time for North Korea. Chinese officials are increasingly at odds whether to continue propping up Pyongyang.
The sheer amount of refugees fleeing to China is one factor in the deterioration of the Chinese-North Korean relationship. The unhappy marriage has gotten so bad, Chinese state-owned newspapers are openly debating whether to cut ties.
“If an administration isn’t supported by the people, ‘collapse’ is just a matter of time,” Lt. Gen. Wang Hongguang wrote in Global Times.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has alienated many Chinese officials by pressing ahead with a nuclear weapons program. In 2013, Kim executed his uncle, Jang Sung Taek, who had a friendly relationship with China’s leaders.
Both governments have also boosted security along the border—a sign of mutual unease at the flow of human beings north. Every year, untold numbers of North Koreans make the dangerous journey to northeast China.
They do so to escape the most terrifyingly oppressive regime on the planet—and they’ll face almost any peril along the way.
Refugees risk encountering North Korean soldiers, drowning in rivers or exploitation by criminals. If they succeed, they risk perhaps the worst fate—deportation back to North Korea.
The northeast frontier
Northeast China has a complicated history. Ethnic Han Chinese, Manchus, Mongols, Koreans and Huis have all lived in the area for generations.
After Tokyo annexed Korea in 1910, Japanese authorities cracked down harshly on dissent. Many Korean nationalists fled to wage a rebellion from abroad. Neighboring Manchuria became a hotbed of Korean dissidents.
For decades, warlord Zhang Zuolin ruled the region.
But in 1928, a bomb killed Zhang as he traveled by train. Japanese officers displeased with Zhang’s inability to stop the Chinese Nationalist march on Beijing are widely suspected to be the assassins.
In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria. A year later, it became Manchukuo—a Japanese puppet state. The Japanese brought thousands of Koreans north to work in factories, dig mines and build railroads.
Many Koreans became part of a growing anti-Japanese insurgency.
One rebel was a Korean communist named Kim Il Sung—future father of North Korea. It’s nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction when exploring Kim’s life.
Pyongyang’s official history of his exploits reads a lot like Rambo III. In reality, he was one of many Korean insurgents to wage a campaign against Japanese forces and Manchukuo puppet troops.
Koreans also served in the Manchukuo army. One ethnic Korean commander infamous for his counterinsurgency campaigns against the guerrillas was an officer named Park Chung Hee—future South Korean ruler and father of current president Park Geun Hye.
Korean cultural influence remained after the Japanese defeat—and the dismantling of Manchukuo. So did many Koreans. There are many Korean communities in northeast China today.
That’s part of the reason that many North Koreans attempt to make a go of living in Manchuria.
For North Korean defectors, one would think that fleeing south would be the most logical way to escape. South Korea has long welcomed escapees with open arms, often trying to reunite them with relatives in the south.
But the 38th Parallel is one of the most secure borders in the world. Barbed wire and minefields fill the divide. And there’s always the possibility of getting shot by a nervous guard—from either side.
At the Joint Security Area where North Korean troops stare down South Korean and American troops, there’s a subtle sign of North Korea’s mindset. At the demarcation line, there are three soldiers on either side. The Americans and South Koreans all face north, toward North Korea.
But the North Korean guards look in different directions. Two of them face each other—while a third faces north. The South Koreans and their American allies are trying to keep their enemies out—but the North Koreans are trying to keep potential defectors in.
Security on the northern border is much more lax. There are natural barriers—the Tumen and Yalu rivers and Paektu Mountain—but they’re much easier to cross than the DMZ to the south.
Smugglers are willing to help move North Korean defectors … for a price. Others brave the elements and go it alone.
It’s dangerous either way. Desperate North Korean women who travel with smugglers have become victims of sex trafficking. Other defectors have drowned or died of exposure during perilous solo crossings.
But that hasn’t stopped thousands of North Koreans from attempting the journey.
They often try to take refuge and blend into ethnic Korean communities. For some, it’s the first step in a long journey as they try to seek asylum elsewhere—often transiting a third country to get into South Korea.
Others decide to stay.
Some have successfully found livelihoods and married ethnic Korean Chinese nationals, and started new lives in China. But Beijing doesn’t officially recognize them as refugees. They’re to be repatriated if caught—and anyone who helps them can face fines.