This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Two smugglers were savagely beaten by a North Korean anti-smuggling task force this month as the country’s tolerance of smuggling across the border with China has given way to a crackdown due to concern over coronavirus, a source near the border told RFA’s Korean Service.
North Korea, which Wednesday claimed it was completely COVID-19-free, has been taking extensive precautions, including closing the border with China to all legitimate trade and an order from leader Kim Jong Un issued to deal with smugglers harshly to discourage the spread of the pathogen from China.
An incident this month in Ryanggang Province showed that North Korea has deployed crack troops to stop border crossings and the special forces are beating anyone who approaches the Yalu River border with next-door China.
“In mid-March, two residents of Kimjongsook county here in Ryanggang Province were attacked by guards at a border guard post while attempting to smuggle a bundle of goods from [across] the Yalu river,” resident of Ryanggang province told RFA’s Korean Service.
“The six soldiers were staking out the border,” added the source.
The guards who attacked the smugglers were not the typical border guards, but members of a maneuver company under the 25th brigade of the 252nd regiment of the 2nd battalion of the Ryanggang provincial border patrol, the source said.
“[They] do not have a fixed guard post. During the day they work by collecting firewood for the company, but when it gets dark, they choose an area where they suspect smuggling is happening and stake it out in groups of three,” said the source.
“The two residents did not know there were undercover guards there and they were severely assaulted that day while trying to bring their goods across,” the source added.
Smuggling goods from China is a way of life for many who live close to the border.
While technically illegal, smuggling is a vital part of an economy where many people are unable to survive on a paltry government salary.
North Korean authorities have long tolerated the most common form of smuggling in which North Korean traders will travel to China, buy mass quantities of goods that are not easy to get in North Korea, and sneak it back across the border for sale in local markets.
Smugglers are often in collusion with border authorities or if caught they can avoid punishment by paying a bribe.
Even though there are orders to harshly punish smuggling, people still take risks because they have few other options to support themselves, according to the source.
“Residents in the border area are trying to smuggle rice anyway, because they are having a hard time making a living. This is why the maneuver company has doubled the number of undercover posts,” the source said.
But with the increased presence at the border and clear directives to punish smugglers, the special force has been targeting anyone in the border area, smuggler or not, according to the source.
“[They] assault people who even approach the Yalu River without determining if they are smugglers first,” said the source, adding, “This is enraging the locals.”
The source said that the task force has currently dispatched around 60 soldiers to the border area in Ryanggang.
“The maneuver company is the first line of troops that were mobilized for the personal safety of Kim Jong Un. They usually provide special security whenever there is a No. 1 event,” the source said, referring to the North Korean term used to describe events where Kim makes a personal appearance.
“They are now, under the supreme commander’s orders, punishing smugglers harshly under military law,” the source said.
But the source suggested that the crackdown was more a show of force than any actual concern over the coronavirus.
“The tyranny over these people who can’t even bribe the guards, under the pretext of cracking down on smuggling is severe,” said the source.
Ordinary North Koreans with no involvement in smuggling have also been mistreated by the special troops.
“A few days ago, a resident of Kimjongsook county’s Sinsang village was on his way to fetch some water from the Yalu,” the source said.
“He was stopped by the undercover guards and they hit his head with the stock of their rifles. He was bleeding all over and he fainted,” said the source.
“His enraged family reported [the incident] to the maneuver company, demanding compensation and punishment,” the source said.
But the military simply brushed the victim’s family aside.
“They warned [the family] not to show up in the suspected smuggling area again, saying [the attack] was an accident in the execution of the supreme commander’s order to control smuggling,” said the source.
“The angry family protested strongly, saying that their neighbors have no choice but to smuggle. They also complained that it was [a special force] and not members of the People’s Army that is beating people [almost] to death.”
Crime, suicides on rise
Life in North Korea under the coronavirus is not only difficult for smugglers—the government’s preventative measures have disrupted the lives of ordinary people, many of whom were already living hand-to-mouth.
The sudden halt of entire industries has left many with no way to earn a living, causing many to resort to crime or even suicide.
“As the coronavirus crisis continues, we’re starting to see violent incidents more frequently because living conditions are worsening,” another source, a resident of North Hamgyong province, told RFA Wednesday.
“Some people are even making extreme choices [like suicide], and the people are in shock,” the second source said.
The North Hamgyong resident recounted a horrifying incident that occurred in Hoeryong, a city near the Chinese border, last month.
“A resident set herself on fire in her house. She was in her fifties and she made her living in the local market,” the second source said.
“She committed suicide because the coronavirus increased the pressure on her business, causing her debts to snowball,” the second source added.
The woman had been a trader, shuttling goods between Hoeryong and the province’s capital and largest city, Chongjin, according to the second source.
“She protested strongly when authorities prevented her from going to Chongjin. So they branded her as an ideological criminal, shouting insults at her and roughing her up,” the second source said.
“So she went home and ended her life, leaving behind her son, who is currently serving in the army.”
The second source said that the people sympathize with the late trader.
“Despite warnings from the authorities not to discuss the woman’s suicide, the people are expressing their anger about the situation. They say that life in the current social environment is making it too hard to live, and that’s what killed her,” the second source said.
A third source, another resident of North Hamgyong told RFA that crime was on the rise following the suspension of trade with China two months ago.
“Prices have risen day after day, and the authorities grip over people’s lives has intensified,” the third source said.
The added stress acts as a pressure cooker, which has boiled over into a series of “shocking incidents,” according to the third source.
“Violent crimes targeting [elite] officials, the rich, and their families are happening more frequently. In late February, the son of a city’s [Korean Workers’] Party official was kidnapped for ransom,” the third source said.
“The kidnappers were brothers in their forties who were [laid off] from their jobs at a steel mill. They committed the crime because they had nothing to eat at home,” said the third source.
“With the new coronavirus presenting difficulties on top of those caused by UN sanctions, everything in North Korea is a mess,” the third source said.
“As hatred between the rich and the poor have gradually intensified, suicides and violent crimes like kidnapping and robbery, have increased, and residents are on the edge.”