BEIJING (AP) — China said Thursday it was investigating the killings of three villagers in a border town where North Korean guards have been accused of crossing over to commit thefts and slayings.
The killings were under investigation and border security troops will "assist police in handling border security related issues and ensure stability along the China-North Korean border," Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said.
The Helong city government said a 55-year-old man surnamed Zhao, his 26-year-old daughter and another man aged 67 were killed Saturday. It said in a statement that police from the provincial to the local levels were investigating.
The killings took place in Longcheng township along the North Korean border, not far from where at least seven villagers were reported killed last year by border guards who had crossed the Tumen River, which separates the countries, in search of money and food.
Those suspects are believed to have fled back into North Korea and no arrests have been reported.
Calls to Helong city and Yanbian prefecture government spokesmen rang unanswered on Thursday.
China is North Korea's chief source of trade, diplomatic support and food and fuel assistance, but the North's desperate economic situation is testing the traditionally close relationship. Underpaid and underfed border guards have reportedly been terrorizing Chinese villagers in recent years, especially in winter when the frozen river can be crossed easily.
North Korea is heavily dependent on international food aid, although the political elite and military receive preferential rations.
Border attacks are believed to have grown over the past two years after a crackdown on crossings by ordinary North Koreans deprived guards of income from bribes. Chinese fishermen have also been held for ransom after being seized by North Korean boats in the Yellow Sea.
The cross-border violence has sparked fears among Chinese residents and increased vigilance from local governments, said Lu Chao, an expert on North Korea at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in northeast China.
"Some degree of panic is inevitable because attacks by North Korean guards are not simply ordinary thefts or robberies," Lu said. In most cases, Chinese and North Korean officials consult over how to deal with such crimes, including paying compensation to the families of the Chinese victims, he said.
Beyond the fear they inspire, such attacks underscore a substantial cooling of ties since Kim Jong Un became supreme leader of North Korea in 2012.
China has been repeatedly rebuffed in its attempts to convince the North to rejoin multinational talks on its nuclear programs. Beijing also was shocked by the 2013 execution of Kim's uncle Jang Song Thaek, who had been a key proponent of North Korea-China relations.
The 1,400-kilometer (870-mile) border runs through mountainous terrain from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan. Sections near the key Chinese city of Dandong are fortified with fences and guard posts, but remote areas have little barriers other than rivers and cliffs.
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report.