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North Korean elite troops deployed in layers at the Sino-Korean border

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), also, North Korea, People's Army guards march in formation in the Panmunjom Joint Security Area. (TSGT James Mossman/U.S. Air Force)
August 22, 2020

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

North Korea has deployed Special Forces soldiers and guards in four layers along the Sino-Korean border in Ryanggang province to prevent illegal crossings during the coronavirus pandemic and to keep watch over regular border guards to rein in on smuggling, sources from the area told RFA.

RFA reported earlier this month that the 1,500 Special Forces soldiers were deployed to Ryanggang on August 2. Their presence swiftly created a tense atmosphere among not only local residents but also border guards, who lost opportunities to squeeze bribes out of local traders.

“Since Aug. 5, we have quadrupled our border security over the North Korea-China border area in Ryanggang Province,” a military source in Ryanggang province told RFA on Thursday.

The source called the deployment a “four-point combat position” that organizes the zone near the border into four layered areas of surveillance responsibility.

Those trying to cross into China under cover of night would need to first navigate across four separate battle lines before reaching the Yalu river border.

“From 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., border guards defend the first line and the Special Forces guard the second line. At night after 8:00 p.m., they guard all four lines,” the source said.

“The border guards man the first and the third lines, and the Special Forces guard the second and the fourth lines. The border guards and the special forces also keep a watchful eye on each other while they are on duty,” the source added.

The source said the Special Forces were granted the power to enforce nighttime movement restrictions on the area’s residents.

“Even officials in the border area are under their control in this tense atmosphere, except in cases where they [must travel] as a matter of national affairs,” the source said.

“Ever since the Special Forces soldiers were deployed [here], the border guards have been made to stop their side jobs and any other daytime work, and they are expected to rest during the day. They are strictly not allowed to do any other activities or rest while they are on night duty.”

North Korean government salaries are not enough to live on, so citizens turn to side-hustles to make ends meet.

Many border guards had been making money in the daytime running businesses, then using their night shifts for rest. Others who actually did rest in the daytime had been engaging in economic activities, including those related to smuggling, at nighttime.

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.

Since the two countries closed their borders in January over coronavirus concerns, legitimate trade has been effectively cut off, leaving large swathes of the population struggling to survive, and more eager to smuggle despite the ongoing pandemic.

Watching the watchers

Another source, a Ryanggang resident who requested anonymity for security reasons, confirmed to RFA that border security had quadrupled in the area after the arrival of the Special Forces.

“The 25th border guard brigade and the special forces divided the border area into four zones 100 meters (about 110 yards) apart,” the second source said.

“Nobody can get out of the house after 8:00 p.m. since the Special Forces arrived,” the second source said.

“In addition, the security department and the police in the area have strengthened patrols in each neighborhood watch unit. The situation is so tense that we don’t even see the shadows of people in the border area villages at night,” the second source said.

The Ryanggang resident said that the presence of the Special Forces has not only made life hard for the residents, but for the border guards as well.

“The border guards used to eat well and they worked under better conditions than soldiers in other regions, but now they are in more difficult situations than those in front-line military units in Kangwon province,” the second source said.

Kangwon province straddles the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas and is a hardship post for soldiers—in part because the remote area offers fewer chances to extract bribes from local residents compared to the busy Sino-Korean border.

But now the border guards in Ryanggang have been stripped of this opportunity with the arrival of the Special Forces, according to the second source.

“It has become difficult for border guards to work in collusion with escape brokers [who help refugees flee to China] in exchange for bribes, or overlook the movement of residents to receive money and food,” the second source said.

“There have been several measures to tighten security at the North Korea-China border in the past, but this is the first time that residents have been under strict control like this. People here in the border areas of Ryanggang province suffer from daily hardships because of these measures.”

Sources say the increased attention on the Sino-Korean border is a result of Kim Jong Un’s personal orders to step up efforts to enhance quarantine measures.

State media reported that at a recent meeting of the Political Bureau, the North Korean leader stressed that due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the country should refuse outside aid intended to assist areas devastated by floods, and the porous border with China should be closed more tightly.