In what looks like a new departure for the government of Kim Jong-il, border guards have reportedly shot dead five North Korean refugees after pursuing them across the frozen Yalu River, which forms a natural border with neighbouring China.
Thousands of North Koreans have fled the world’s last Stalinist state in a bid to escape poverty and hunger.
South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that border guards chased seven refugees across the river into China, before opening fire.
“Five of them died instantly under intensive gunfire by North Korean border guards who had run after them and the two others were wounded and taken to the North,” the paper said.
The reports said the guards dragged the bodies and the injured back over the border with the permission of Chinese authorities.
The seven had left Hyesan in Yanggang province and walked across the frozen Yalu River and reached the Chinese side on 14 December, the paper reported, quoting a high-level source in Changbai in the Chinese province of Jilin.
This is the first time in years that there have been reports of defectors being shot. North Korean border guards have never before shot defectors once they had reached the Chinese side of the border.
The shooting comes at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, following the North’s nuclear tests and its shelling of a South Korean island late last year.
Mr Kim’s heir, Kim Jong-un, who is being groomed to take over from his ill father, has denounced refugees as traitors and has reportedly ordered border guards to shoot anyone trying to leave the country illegally.
A year ago, the government in Pyongyang reportedly gave shoot-to-kill orders after disastrous reform of its currency caused widespread hardship among the already impoverished populace by wiping out savings.
Many North Korean defectors escape through China, finding sanctuary with ethnic Koreans in the border regions of China, and then make their way to the South. In some cases China has handed back defectors across the border to an uncertain fate.
However, the area is deeply porous and difficult to monitor with lots of traffic, both trade and human, crossing the frontier.
China is North Korea’s sole ally, and both communist countries fought side-by-side against the United States and the South during the 1950-53 Korean War, while food and fuel aid from China is said to keeping the North Korean economy going.
Beijing is keen for stability in North Korea as it does not want a flood of refugees across the frontier, and it does not want the US-backed South Korea gaining a foothold on its borders.
Their relationship is occasionally strained. In June, China lodged a diplomatic protest after a North Korean border guard shot and killed three Chinese citizens and wounded a fourth, on suspicion they were crossing the border for illegal trade.
In March last year, a prominent North Korean defector, Hwang Jang-yop, was found dead in Seoul, and there was a suspicion that he had been assassinated, although police subsequently said he died of a heart attack.
Separately, North Korea accused South Korean internet users of hacking into one of its websites, calling the action a provocation aimed at undermining its national dignity.