Nukes And Crime: China's Borderline Troubles

China's patience with North Korea is wearing thin. The trouble isn't only Pyongyang's crash program to create a nuclear arsenal--although that's caused plenty of sleepless nights in Beijing. Thanks largely to heavy diplomatic pressure from China's president, Hu Jintao, negotiators from Pyongyang are scheduled to begin talks in Beijing this week with representatives from China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. But the Chinese have a more urgent reason than anyone else at the table to want major reforms in Kim Jong Il's regime without delay. Hunger and oppression inside North Korea have spawned an epidemic of violent crime on the Chinese side of the border. "The North Koreans aren't afraid of anything," says one area resident. "Now we're the ones living in fear."

Although Beijing has mostly kept the crime wave out of the papers, it's no secret to anyone who lives in the area. More than 100,000 illegal North Korean refugees live in China in hiding, under constant threat of being sent home to face starvation, imprisonment and possible execution if they are caught. Robbing or stealing is sometimes the only way to survive. North Korean soldiers have added to the chaos, in-filtrating across the line and attempting armed robberies--even, NEWSWEEK has learned, a bank holdup in the border town of Tumen.

As if that weren't enough, Pyongyang has sent swarms of operatives into China to track down defectors and refugees. The hunts can end in murder. In one border town, armed North Korean agents apparently killed a pair of South Korean missionaries along with four North Korean refugees whom they were hiding. In another incident, a North Korean refugee killed two local police and a Chinese border patrolman in the town of Longjing, west of Tumen. Last week, thousands of Chinese troops arrived in the region's main city, Yanji. Local sources say that they will be stationed at a string of newly constructed military garrisons in Tumen and other frontier towns, replacing smaller units of border police.

Still, China's efforts to tighten security are no more than stopgap measures against the rising desperation on North Korea's side of the border. Worse, if Beijing pushes for reforms, some Chinese officials fear that Pyongyang will retaliate with what one calls "acts of terrorism." Nukes or no nukes, China has abundant reasons for wanting a more responsible regime next door--100,000 of them, and counting.