Chinese police asked South Korean citizens near the North Korea-China border to evacuate the area due to risks of an attack and abduction by the North, Seoul's Foreign Ministry said Thursday.
"We are aware that Chinese authorities have suggested South Korean citizens there evacuate on the possibility of an attack by North Korea," the ministry here said.
Local media reports said Tuesday that Chinese police warned around 10 South Korean businesspeople, community associates and religious leaders residing near the border to evacuate due to the possibility of abduction by North Korea.
They were notified during the Chuseok holiday earlier this month amid heightened military tensions on the Korean Peninsula and ahead of China's upcoming Communist Party Congress.
Among them, five had already left China as of 7 a.m. Wednesday, while the rest have chosen temporary escape or are considering to return to South Korea, added Seoul's Foreign Ministry.
The South Korean Consulate General in Shenyang pointed out that it was an unprecedented move for Chinese authorities to directly communicate with South Korean nationals on such matters. It also advised South Koreans to be cautious of strangers and alert family members or acquaintances.
"Previously, the consulate made the safety measures whenever there were signs of such attacks by the North -- this is the first time Chinese authorities took direct action," said Consul-General to Shenyang Shin Bong-sup.
An unnamed consulate official suggested that the authorities' actions were triggered by an obtained intelligence report hinting at North Korea's secretive operation.
In May, a 60-year-old North Korean defector reportedly went missing in the Chinese city of Yanji, near the North-China border, while in 2016, an ethnic Korean named Han Chung-ryeol was allegedly murdered by North Korean agents. Han was a Christian pastor who aided North Korean defectors in China.
But experts here are sceptical that North Korea would make a move to kidnap South Korean nationals, despite heightening tensions.
"It seems the warning is part of China's efforts to adopt stricter security before its most important political event," Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told The Korea Herald.
"North Korea has been causing trouble near the North-China border and China needs to show that it is making all efforts to contain such problems both locally and globally," Lee said.
South Korea's government data showed that about 500 of its citizens have been abducted by the reclusive state since after the Korean War (1950-53). Those snatched away were often reportedly used for propaganda activities or intelligence gathering.
However, for more than a decade, North Korean agents have been mainly targeting North Korean defectors rather than those who were born and bred in South Korea.
Meanwhile, South Korea has been ramping up its reconnaissance operations ahead of the 19th national congress of China's Communist Party, which Cheong Wa Dae has highlighted as a date when a North Korean provocation might take place.
Anton Morozov, a senior Russian lawmaker, who visited Pyongyang from Oct. 2-6, claimed the North is currently preparing for a new long-range missile test in order to prove it can "hit the west coast of the United States."
"As far as we understand, they intend to launch one more long-range missile in the near future," he said.