NANPING, China: A three-meter barbed wire fence and the winding Tumen River are all that separate Nanping in China from North Korea, and after a spate of murders – allegedly by frontier-crossing intruders – frightened villagers are increasingly keen to leave, fearing neither the water nor the barrier are enough to protect them.
Over the past year at least 10 people have been killed by North Koreans – mostly soldiers – attempting robberies in the area, according to Chinese officials and state-controlled media reports.
Food security is a perennial issue in North Korea, raising the specter of individuals driven by desperation to attack their wealthier neighbors in China.
Officially Nanping’s population is more than 6,000, but in reality it is becoming a ghost town. Most houses and buildings have been abandoned for years, many with broken windows and overgrown gardens.
Its people are ethnic Koreans and the younger generation’s multilingual abilities give them far better employment opportunities with South Korean firms elsewhere.
All have left, leaving only the elderly and a small Chinese military contingent, along with local Communist Party secretary Wu Shigen, who is in his 30s and said he was by far the youngest person in the village.
He has a two-pronged plan for keeping the peace: a voluntary curfew and an information blackout.
“I tell all the residents not to go out at night, and to pay attention to their safety,” Wu said – although most of those killed were murdered in their homes.
“There are no witnesses for any of these attacks and we don’t tell the residents much,” he added. “The less people know, the less they will be afraid.”
Security cameras watch the two streets running parallel to the border and China earlier this year announced civilian-military patrols for the area.
However, residents said the militia was never set up, with a shop owner adding some elderly villagers have joined the exodus in recent months, scared away by the violence.
In April, a trio of North Korean soldiers searching for food and money killed three people near Nanping, according to local authorities and Chinese media.
That came after a North Korean soldier was fatally shot in December having murdered two elderly village couples while stealing 100 yuan ($16) and some food, they said.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said after the quadruple killing that it had “lodged representations” with Pyongyang and both sides took the case “very seriously,” adding the North had “expressed its regret that such [an]incident happened.”
It was a rare open censure of a longstanding ally.
Three months earlier, a North Korean civilian was captured after killing a family of three during a robbery, the Beijing News reported, also confirmed by officials in the area.