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North Korea shuts down border city after guards caught smuggling

Inscription stone marking the border of China and North Korea in Jilin (Prince Roy/WikiCommons)
November 13, 2020

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

Authorities in North Korea have blocked off the city of Hyesan on the border with China due to coronavirus fears after they discovered that border guards had met with Chinese contacts to engage in smuggling, sources in the country told RFA.

Residents of Hyesan and surrounding Ryanggang province, in the country’s central northern area, report that the city’s lockdown has brought commerce in the region to a standstill, inconveniencing residents who rely on local markets for their livelihoods.

For Ryanggang residents outside of the city, anyone who had even merely visited Hyesan on Nov. 1 has also been flagged for quarantine.

“On the 2nd, the Ryanggang Provincial Party Committee conducted a regional investigation into the residents who visited Hyesan on the first… as a result, they have to self-isolate for 20 days in their homes,” a Ryanggang province official, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA’s Korean Service Thursday.

The lockdown was first reported on Nov. 3 by DailyNK, a South Korean media outlet that specializes in North Korean news. In that report, sources in Ryanggang said that that a security officer and a soldier from the 25th Border Guard brigade stationed in the province had “conducted smuggling while on duty.”

The report also confirmed that the entire city of Hyesan was shut down for 20 days, with residents told to stay in their homes until the order is lifted.

“Authorities here have taken a series of measures to prevent residents from having contact with foreigners, all to stop the spread of the coronavirus,” RFA’s source in Ryanggang said.

“Despite this, on the first, the border guards met their Chinese contacts at the border. So the central government issued an emergency order to self-isolate, not only to the residents of Hyesan, but also to anyone who visited the city on that day,” the source said, confirming DailyNK’s account of events.

The source said that the county level party committees all over the province investigated to find residents who had visited the city that day.

“Police patrolled each jurisdiction for Hyesan visitors and gave them an order to stay home for 20 days,” the source said.

“The authorities have blocked Hyesan, where the rich financiers of Ryanggang province are concentrated. This has had a great impact on the distribution lines for marketplaces all over the province. The residents of the province will shortly face tremendous hardship because of this,” said the source.

Another source, a resident of the province, confirmed RFA Thursday that outside the city, those who had visited Hyesan on Nov. 1 were ordered into isolation for 20 days.

“Pungso county is an area where we make ends meet by farming a small plot, but many residents here who visited Hyesan that day are now unable to go outside for the next 20 days. They are in a situation where they won’t be able to harvest all their crops because they have to stay home,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“Since the beginning of this year, authorities have been restricting our movement to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and this has caused a major disruption in our livelihoods. This hardline stance by the authorities is intended to convince residents that the cause of the government’s economic policy failures is the coronavirus,” the source said.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) North Korea still has not confirmed a single case of coronavirus.

Pyongyang’s claim that it is virus-free is widely doubted, however, with North Korea watchers pointing to shutdowns of entire counties and cities, cancellation of important cultural events, and schools breaking for summer vacation just one month after a delayed opening.

RFA reported in April that the government in a series of lectures told the public that the virus was spreading in various parts of the country including the capital Pyongyang.