This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea has deployed 1,500 elite special forces soldiers to the Sino-Korean border area of northern Ryanggang province to target corruption and smuggling while preventing citizens from escaping to China, sources in the region told RFA.
The soldiers, part of an official counter-terrorism unit in North Korea’s military, are seen as an annoyance to residents of the area, who have been chafing under extreme scrutiny since the outbreak of COVID-19, sources said.
“On the 2nd, 1,500 special forces soldiers arrived in Hyesan,” a Ryanggang military official, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service Monday.
“Upon arrival, the soldiers were dispersed all along the Sino-Korean border line in Ryanggang province. [They] are known to be highly trained and educated in political ideology,” the source said.
Some of the special forces unit will be tasked with reining in corruption, cracking down on border security agents who accepting bribes from small-time smugglers or who engage in smuggling themselves.
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in January, North Korean and Chinese authorities have closed borders, and North Korea has severely cracked down on smuggling.
Illegally moving goods in and out of China has been the lifeblood of North Korea’s nascent market economy, especially in the face of U.S. and U.N. sanctions aimed at depriving Pyongyang of cash and resources for its nuclear and missile programs.
The deployment comes amid a campaign to tighten border controls in the face of suspected cases of coronavirus and after a major corruption case was revealed in Ryanggang.
RFA reported last month that an unknown number of government and border security officials were implicated in a case in which smugglers were caught trying to move gold and platinum into China from Ryanggang.
Now, border officials will be policed by elite soldiers, who have the authority to “crack down on all illegal and anti-state activities in the border area,” according to the source.
“Groups of between 150 and 300 of the soldiers were deployed to each military unit along the border, including in the city of Hyesan, and in Pochon county,” the source said.
“Members of law enforcement agencies and border guards here in Ryanggang are also on high alert as they are under the control of the special forces, at least in the border area,” said the source.
A resident of Pochon county confirmed to RFA that 300 of the elite troops arrived Sunday evening and began work Monday. They were deployed in groups at border guard posts, camping with the guards.
“From the 3rd, these special forces soldiers began a crackdown on the movement of residents and on various illegal activities in the border area of Pochon country,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“They seem to have been sent to the North Korea-China border to strengthen control over North Korean escapees, while keeping an eye on border guards and other law enforcement agencies in the border area,” the second source said.
The Pochon county source said the presence of elite troops on their doorstep is “creating a more intense atmosphere and residents are starting to panic.”
“Ryanggang has already seen security doubled and tripled due to the coronavirus crisis, but now that the special forces are here, the citizens are even more incensed.”
The special forces sent to Ryanggang are part of the XI Corps of the Korean People’s Army, which considers among its forbears a unit that is notorious in South Korea.
The 124th army sent 31 North Korean commandos dressed in South Korean army uniforms to attack on the presidential Blue House in Seoul, in a failed bid to assassinate President Park Chung Hee on January 21, 1968.