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North Korea orders troops and police to shoot citizens who approach the Chinese border

Soldiers from the Korean People's Army look south while on duty in the Joint Security Area. February 16, 2008. (Edward N. Johnson/U.S. Army)
August 30, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korea has ordered military units and police to shoot on sight anyone in the country who goes within one kilometer (0.6 miles) of the Sino-Korean border, the latest of Pyongyang’s draconian measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, sources in the country told RFA Wednesday.

A resident of North Hamgyong province, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service that he learned of the new border policy less than a day before it took effect at midnight local time Thursday.

“Police in the city of Hoeryong issued an emergency notice from the Ministry of Social Security, saying they would kill anyone within a kilometer of the North Korea-China border regardless of their reason for being there,” the source said.

The emergency declaration “will be in effect along the entire North Korea-China border until the coronavirus pandemic ends,” said the source, adding that authorities emphasized that they were trying to prevent the transmission of coronavirus through contact with people from China.

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Though the two countries suspended trade and officially closed the border at the beginning of the pandemic in January, the frontier has remained porous, because North Korea’s nascent market economy depends on the smuggling of goods into and out of China.

Since January, RFA reported several incidents related to smuggling of goods or movement of people across the border, including the mid-July return of a refugee that had previously escaped. He was undetected during his return, and a reportedly infuriated top leader Kim Jong Un disbanded the military unit responsible for guarding the part of the border he crossed.

RFA also previously reported that North Korean elite special forces troops were sent to “assist” border guard units posted there, but sources said their true purpose was to watch the guards for corruption, as smugglers often pay off the guards to look the other way when they send or receive shipments across the border.

North Korea is serious about maintaining its claimed—but widely-doubted—status as the only “virus-free” country in the world, according to the North Hamgyong resident.

“After announcing the declaration, the police department told the public, ‘The coronavirus has spread everywhere except our country, so the enemy is trying to infiltrate the border by sending the virus across it,’” the source said.

“They stressed the need to raise awareness among the border area residents and establish a system to report strangers and activities of the enemy,” the source added.

North Korea still has not reported a single COVID-19 case, even though in April it admitted to citizens in public lectures that the virus was spreading in three seperate parts of the country, including the capital.

Kim Jong Un in June fired senior health officials for failing to contain the virus and declared a maximum national emergency in July, locking down the city of Kaesong and forbidding travel between provinces after the government said a suspected case turned up there.

The government is sending ammunition to the police in the border areas so they can carry out the new border policy, the North Hamgyong resident said.

“They are even saying that no one will be held responsible for shooting deaths that occur within a kilometer of the border area,” said the source.

The forbidden zone covers the entire 1,420-km (880-mile) border with China, in the four provinces of North Hamgyong, North Pyongan, Chagang and Ryanggang.

A military source from North Hamgyong confirmed the declaration to RFA, saying that the military received notification Tuesday.

“At around 5:00 p.m. on the 25th, an urgent telegram from the Supreme Command came in telling the military to kill anyone within a kilometer of the border regardless of the reason. The emergency message goes into effect from midnight on the 26th,” the second source said.

“The emergency order stipulates that soldiers on border guard duty will leave behind their blank shots and carry only live ammunition. The authorities have sent the notorious special forces to the border area [to watch the border guard units] and now they are ordering the units to fire upon their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers with live ammunition,” said the second source.

The second source confirmed that the public was informed of the new restrictions on Wednesday morning.

“Residents must not go within a kilometer of the border line for the time being, even if their livelihoods are difficult.”

North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported Wednesday that Kim Jong Un presided over an enlarged meeting of the Political Bureau to discuss in the country’s emergency quarantine readiness and to further enhance efforts to contain the coronavirus.

The government has stressed that the prevention of the coronavirus is “directly linked to the well-being of the people and the safety of the country,” and has called the response to the crisis a matter of national survival.

However, sources have told RFA that the North Korean authorities are facing an economic crisis and have enacted the border policy to suppress complaints from the people and prevent their escape.