From the Borderland to Beijing: Chinese Civilian Shot in Changbai
It is no simple task to establish whether news of incidents along North Korea’s frontier with China indicate a shifting situation in need of close observation or are a result of less fundamental pressures from elsewhere. When media groups allocate or receive funding for trips to the border region, those dispatched tend to file multiple reports to justify the expense. This results in abundance for a spell, but the flow stops just as abruptly as it began whilst the situation on the ground may not have changed at all. Such patterns of reportage do not always aid onlookers in establishing whether border incidents are isolated events or indicative of seismic change.
One sensational report from the DPRK-PRC border region was published in the Donga Ilbo on September 18. According to the article in Korean, “It has emerged that in March a North Korean overseas assassination and kidnapping team under the GBR, or General Bureau of Reconnaissance (북한 정찰총국 소속 해외 암살 및 납치 공작조), attempted to kidnap a South Korean citizen in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture and drag [him] off to North Korea, but were arrested by the Chinese authorities.” The report claims, fairly imprecisely, that the 5-8 arrested North Koreans are being held somewhere in Jilin Province and have admitted to being GBR agents.
No sooner had this report been picked up by Chinese state media than, on September 19, a second tale of borderland intrigue was reported by MBC, one of South Korea’s big two broadcasters. Coming from further southwest in Ryanggang Province, the report alleges that a North Korean soldier recently crossed the river border near Hyesan and shot at the driver of a civilian vehicle on a nearby road, severely injuring him (the gender of the victim is not clear, but he was likely to have been male).
The following translation of the MBC report follows a pattern in South Korean media, whereby cross-border incidents are invariably tied into larger narratives. Citing an unnamed former Workers’ Party cadre, the Donga Ilbo asserts that North Korea’s GBR and Ministry of State Security (MSS) are locked in a battle to prove back in Pyongyang that they have the upper hand in border security and mitigating the danger posed by enemy (primarily South Korean) agents operating from Chinese territory. The arrest of Kim Guk-ki and Choe Chun-gil by the MSS earlier this year is cited as a relevant data point. Meanwhile, the MBC report points to a long string of borderland incidents ever since Chinese-North Korean relations were cast into the deep freeze over North Korea’s obstinate third nuclear test and the execution of Jang Song-taek in February and December 2013 respectively.
For observers keen to locate and unpack the inner workings of the North Korean security apparatus and relations with China, such stories are useful reference points. However, there is cause for circumspection. While linkages to larger domestic and/or bilateral political issues are plausible, borderlands are by definition remote peripheries and difficult to control from the center. Localized structural pressures may be more relevant motivating forces; food security in Korean People’s Army units, for example, and/or turf warfare over smuggling rights. The road doesn’t always run from the borderland to Beijing.
Kim, Se-jin, “[Exclusive] Successive deviations [from the norm], Chinese civilian shot in the border region” [[단독취재] 北 잇따른 일탈, 접경 지역서 中민간인 총격], MBC News, September 19, 2015.
Yesterday afternoon in Changbai in southeastern Jilin Province, China, a North Korean soldier took aim and shot at a civilian vehicle.
The location less than 10m from the border is adjacent to Hyesan in Ryanggang Province, North Korea.
A Chinese man who was shot in the shoulder was taken to hospital for emergency surgery but is known to be in a serious condition.
It is not clear whether the man, who was driving a mini-van when he was shot at, was a tourist, a local resident, or a smuggler.
A source said that the North Korean soldier who fired the shots was not a military deserter, and that Chinese security forces have been dispatched to investigate the details.
DPRK-China relations rapidly cooled after North Korea’s third nuclear test and the execution of Jang Song-taek, since when there has been a string of incidents involving the North Korean military in the border region.
In January, an armed deserter in his 20s murdered four Chinese-Koreans in Helong City, Jilin Province, across from Musan in North Hamgyong Province before dying himself.
Then in March, a hostage situation involving a deserter from the North Korean military occurred in Dandong.
China is setting up closed-circuit television and lighting and increasing the number of checkpoints in the China-North Korea border zone to be ready for crimes committed by the North Korean military, but the discontent of local residents is rising continually.
Source: Kim, Se-jin, “[Exclusive] Successive deviations [from the norm], Chinese civilian shot in the border region” [[단독취재] 北 잇따른 일탈, 접경 지역서 中민간인 총격], MBC News, September 19, 2015. Translation by Christopher Green.