This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Military authorities in North Korea have quarantined an entire company of soldiers who patrol the country’s border with China, after it was discovered that one of the soldiers had come in contact with a Chinese national, sources in the country told RFA.
The company is part of the 25th border guard brigade, stationed along part of the Sino-Korean border in Ryanggang province. A North Korean brigade is usually divided into around 10 companies of about 120-150 troops each.
“On the 10th, a company in the 25th brigade was quarantined to prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” a military source from Ryanggang, who asked not to be named, told RFA Monday.
“After a total of 60 days of isolation, the soldiers in the company can only come out if they do not show symptoms,” the source said.
The source did not specify the location and unit name of the responsible company for the safety of the soldiers.
Securing the border with China to prevent coronavirus has been a major priority for North Korea in recent weeks.
Though the two countries suspended trade and officially closed the border at the beginning of the pandemic in January, the 1,420-km (880-mile) 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 where 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 stop the guards from taking bribes from smugglers to look the other way when contraband crosses the border.
Last week, sources told RFA that a shoot-on-sight order was in effect for anyone found within a kilometer (0.6 miles) of the border.
The Ryanggang source said the one soldier got his company in trouble at the beginning of August when he served as a middleman in a border transaction.
“On the 6th, a solder in the 25th received money on behalf of a local resident from a Chinese national while on duty at the border,” the source said, adding that a state security agent witnessed this soldier delivering the money to the resident, and reported it as suspicious activity.
“After that resident was arrested and investigated, it was revealed that the border guard had come in contact with the Chinese,” the source said.
While in most cases the recommended quarantine period is 14 days, it is believed that the soldiers are on a 60-day quarantine as a form of punishment. Soldiers do not receive a proper food supply, and if they are unable to go out for two months, they will face hunger during the two months of isolation.
“They went into quarantine together without getting tested. The quarantined soldiers aren’t allowed to go outside of their barracks and they are confined there, but the authorities are not providing food, so they are complaining of hunger,” the source said.
“The authorities are taking this case seriously because this incident happened even though they have been emphasizing their emergency quarantine status, holding several plenary meetings of the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] to block the coronavirus,” the source said.
The country declared a “maximum national emergency” in mid-July when a refugee who had escaped to South Korea swam back North across the inter-Korean border to an area near his hometown of Kaesong.
Authorities claimed the refugee displayed coronavirus symptoms and Kaesong was put on lockdown. Additionally, travel between provinces was banned and Pyongyang began to focus more closely on the activities of military units along the border with China.
“Once the quarantine is over, the soldier and the commanding officer will be in trouble,” the source said.
Another source, a Ryanggang resident, confirmed to RFA Monday that the entire company was quarantined.
“It is said that the soldiers are not allowed to step out of the barracks and that the period of quarantine is from August 10 to October 10,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
“Earlier this month, around the same time, there was a case in which a company belonging to the 27th brigade was disbanded for failing to prevent a refugee from re-entering the country. People are saying that the 25th brigade’s company might also be disbanded as soon as their quarantine is over,” said the second source.
The second source expressed concern that if any of the soldiers actually have coronavirus, the quarantine could cause the virus to spread among the whole company or even kill some of them.
“The authorities forcibly quarantined all the border guards of the company [to punish them] for having contact with Chinese, but there were no diagnostic procedures or medical staff to check their health conditions,” the second source said.
“There are no medical supplies or medical facilities in case of emergency. If any of the quarantined soldiers are infected by the new coronavirus, they just have to sit and wait for their deaths,” the second source said.
On August 26, WHO Representative to the DPRK Edwin Salvador told RFA that the North Korean Ministry of Public Health reported on August 20 that a total of 2,767 people in the country had been tested for COVID-19, all with negative results. He added that the North Korean authorities did not confirm any details about the Kaesong returning refugee suspected case.
North Korea still maintains it is virus-free despite the government’s extensive measures against COVID-19, including in April advising citizens in public lectures that the virus at that time had been spreading in the capital and two other regions of the country. It has not reported a single confirmed case.