Hungry Soldiers, Bloodshed on the Tumen: Sources [Updated]

[Update: An much-expanded version of this post, including a full translation of a Chinese editorial about the matter, was published yesterday at Sino-NK.]

On the morning of 27 December, a North Korean soldier reportedly left his post in North Hamgyong province, walked across the frozen Tumen river into a small village in the PRC’s Helong county, and proceeded to shoot and kill four civilians before being wounded and apprehended by Chinese border guards. If you haven’t been following the case since news broke yesterday, The Guardian‘s report from Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing sums up things thus far.

The PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson included two pregnant sentences about the incident in yesterday’s (5 January) press conference, an event which also included some more extended veiled warnings for the DPRK with respect to hacking.  The MFA press conference is available here in English, and here in the original Chinese.  The English translation of the spokeswoman’s statement that China has ‘lodged representations’ with Pyongyang about the case is to be understood more simply as ‘negotiating,’ as the term used is jiaoshe /交涉.

Mainland Chinese media had not commented at all on the matter, but its mention at the Foreign Ministry briefing clearly broke the dam. The Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) covered the matter in a short article which did not mention the specific village which was the site of the violent events, but it did describe the soldier’s probable motivation as being that of ‘severe hunger’, and recalled a similar instance that occurred in December 2013 along the similar stretch of border just north of Yanji city.

If you’re wondering why the news took so long to circulate, it probably has very little to do with China trying to protect North Korea from the storms of international public opinion, and everything to do with the tourism business in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. On December 28 (the day after the murders on the Tumen River), Helong city was hosting a major tourism gathering which brought together all manner of officials in that realm. Just to be on the safe side, the Public Security Bureau in Wangqing (which is much further north of the border and Yanji city, but an area of very heavy concentration of ethnic Koreans) was doing full traffic stoppages in the name of road safety. While the press reports in English have noted that the killings took place in ‘Helong city,’ that is true only in the most technical sense: The site of the murders was in Nanping (南坪), the second red dot from the left on the map above.

There will be much to learn from the present tragedy in terms of what it means for Sino-Korean relations, and already sour public opinion in the Yanbian region and northeast China more generally with respect to North Korea, but for the time being, the facts of the case and the parameters of China’s response still need to be clarified. Fortunately China’s Ambassador Liu Hongcai emerged from a two-month hiatus a few days ago to conclude a sports agreement with Pyongyang, and presumably he and his staff are activated and very much working on this case in the North Korean metropole.


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