Uneasy Neighbors

Within the last two weeks a large number of Chinese soldiers have poured into the remote northeastern frontier bordering North Korea. Troops are preparing for another grim winter, when the Tumen River freezes and desperate North Korean refugees dodge Chinese patrols to escape into China. In the late '90s, fleeing North Koreans won local sympathy with their heart-rending tales of repression, famine, even cannibalism. But Beijing cracked down on the influx in 2001, and this year China has beefed up border security to what one local professor calls "an unusual, abnormal degree." Over the next month, NEWSWEEK has learned, troops will move into five newly constructed barracks in key frontier towns, replacing smaller border-police units. Their mission: to repel the expected waves of refugees this winter--and to quash escalating violence involving North Koreans on the Chinese side of the border.

Chinese authorities are losing patience with their northeastern neighbor. For decades Beijing tolerated Pyongyang's erratic behavior, and even pooh-poohed Western warnings about a covert nuclear program. But last October, North Korean authorities themselves admitted to secretly developing nukes. That was an unpleasant wake-up call for Beijing. Last week's six-party talks meant to defuse the nuclear crisis were the culmination of an unprecedented flurry of diplomacy on China's part. But North Korean authorities continue to live up to their reputation as being qiong heng--"impoverished and truculent," as the Chinese put it. During the talks, China's representative was reportedly irked when the North Koreans announced they intended to formally declare their country a nuclear power--and to conduct a nuclear test (accompanying story).

Chinese authorities now view their traditional ally as a growing liability. Even as the Pyongyang regime tries to blackmail the West in return for economic benefit, it continues to rely on imported food aid and fuel from China. (Holding his head in his hands, one exasperated Beijing official lamented to an American acquaintance, "Even the Laotians can feed themselves!") Already more than 150,000 North Korean refugees are hiding out in China, and official numbers put the annual refugee influx at about 10,000. "Actually, the real number is more like 20,000," says Huang Dahui, an expert on North Korea at the People's University in Beijing, "and if there's a new conflict on the Korean Peninsula, a lot more refugees will come."

The refugees are having an increasingly destabilizing effect on the Chinese frontier. About two years ago North Korean refugees began robbing--even killing--more affluent Chinese citizens, many of them ethnic Koreans. "We used to take pity on refugees; we gave them food, money and shelter," says an ethnic Korean woman living on the Chinese side, "but now there's so much violence. And we poor people are the victims. We hate the refugees now."

Nestled in an idyllic valley near a bend in the Tumen River, residents of Dasu village are all "paranoid" these days, says Bang Kil-sub. Last February a North Korean infiltrator cut the phone and power lines to a neighbor's house--and slit the throats of an elderly couple inside. "Then he robbed the house and disappeared back across the border into North Korea," Bang tells a reporter in his mud-brick home, just 100 meters from the crime scene. "No one wants to live here anymore." He says he's too poor to move, and worries that this year's apple harvest won't support his young family because "all the flowers froze in the spring. It's as if death moved over our village."

Gruesome photographs of the Dasu couple's blood-soaked corpses are still on display outside border police stations. But it's only one of a string of violent crimes and bank robberies. Worse, armed North Korean troops have joined in the mayhem. In June, members of an ethnic Korean family were discovered bound, gagged, robbed and murdered near the border city of Hunchun; villagers said the killer was a North Korean soldier. Last January, a North Korean border guard opened fire in Banshi village with his AK-47 assault rifle before trying to slit the throat of a robbery victim (fortunately, the bayonet was too blunt and the victim escaped with a shallow wound). That same month a 19-year-old soldier from the North was caught near Hun-chun with his Kalashnikov and 120 rounds of ammo. Less than two months ago, four North Korean troops tried to rob a Tumen bank at gunpoint. "They were caught by a passing Chinese Army patrol," says Xing Guomin, an engineer who works in Tumen.

Many residents on the Chinese side of the border are now terrified. They know all North Korean males have received compulsory military training, and trade stories of refugees who cross the river and come begging for food, only to murder their hosts after eating their fill. "They used to just tie people up and rob them. Now they tie people up and murder them," says a woman living in Sanhe village. "They're not afraid of anything--and we're the ones who now live in fear." Some of the violence has been blamed on hard-line North Korean saboteurs resentful of Beijing's recognition of Seoul in 1992, Chinese officials say.

Things could get worse before they get better. Now that multilateral talks look set to continue, Beijing will likely have to notch up the pressure on Pyongyang to persuade it to abandon its nukes. Last February China wrestled North Korea to the negotiating table by temporarily shutting off oil supplies to Pyongyang. That worked--but if Pyongyang feels too harassed by Beijing in the future, border provocations could intensify. Worse, if talks collapse and Pyongyang conducts a nuclear test, Beijing may have to choose between an odious alliance and an open rift--and in either case North Korea's borders would become the world's most dangerous frontiers.