North Korea has pledged to severely punish border guards responsible for the shooting deaths of three Chinese nationals at the border between the countries last week, Chinese official media reported yesterday.
The hermit regime's authorities told Xinhua that the shooting at its border with the northeastern city of Dandong , Liaoning , last Friday was an 'accidental incident'.
'The North Korean side has expressed grief over the loss of lives on the Chinese side and expressed condolences to the victims' families,' Xinhua said.
Pyongyang said it would punish those responsible and prevent a similar incident happening.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said yesterday that authorities from both sides were still investigating the incident, in which one other person was injured. He declined to provide further information.
Qin said earlier that Beijing had lodged a severe diplomatic protest over the incident.
The Foreign Ministry said North Korean border guards fired at the Chinese nationals early that morning as they were suspected of conducting border trade.
Other media reports suggested the Chinese were members of a Dandong-based smuggling gang and were on a boat along the Yalu River, which forms part of the border between Liaoning and North Korea, when the shooting took place.
Smuggling has been rampant across the borders largely owing to the scarcity of goods in North Korea.
Pyongyang's response, which amounts to an acknowledgement of its responsibility for the deaths of the Chinese nationals while they were allegedly conducting illegal activity in its territory, posed a stark contrast to that of the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean naval corvette, in March.
Citing results of an international investigation, Seoul said Pyonyang had torpedoed the ship, killing 46 South Korean soldiers.
But the North denied the accusation, describing the finding as a 'fabrication'.
The international community then put pressure on China, North Korea's most important ally and biggest donor of aid, to denounce Pyongyang. But Beijing's response was to call on all parties to exercise restraint.
The sinking of the Cheonan could have been a factor in Friday's shooting, as mainland media reported North Korea had stepped up its border defences since the incident.
The Global Times, a mainland newspaper run by Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, reported on Wednesday that the North Korean soldiers could have mistaken the Chinese as spies from the South, as they spoke Korean and wore camouflaged outfits.
Citing unnamed sources, the report said the Chinese ship was steering close to the North Korean border city of Sinujiu when they ran into the border guard's vessel.
The North Korean soldiers had then opened fire without confirming their identity, it said. Two Chinese died on the way back to the Chinese border, while the body of the third was found in the river the next day.