This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea has deployed anti-aircraft guns on some parts of its border with China, the latest tactic aimed at preventing people from escaping, and stopping corruption among other soldiers there, sources in the country told RFA.
An already dire economic situation was made worse in January when Beijing and Pyongyang closed the Sino-Korean border and suspended all trade over COVID-19 concerns.
To deter citizens from trying to flee to China to escape harsh living conditions, North Korea has imposed a series of ever harsher measures in late 2020.
Authorities beefed up the frontier guard corps with special forces and ordered soldiers to shoot anyone within a kilometer (0.6 miles) of the border regardless of their reason for being there, before deploying landmines to increase deterrence.
But sources said people were still willing to take the risk of crossing the border illegally, so authorities have now brought out the big guns.
“In October, the General Command ordered corps commands stationed along the border to forward-deploy anti-aircraft guns,” a military source in North Hamgyong province in the country’s northeast, on the border with China, told RFA’s Korean Service Tuesday.
“In mid-November, anti-aircraft artillery battalions under the 9th Corps were forward deployed to the city of Hoeryong, and Musan and Onsong counties,” the source said.
The source said that none of the authorities’ previous measures to stop illegal border crossers had worked. People were still willing to risk traversing paths that might run through minefields or being shot on sight.
“The anti-aircraft artillery battalions were deployed to areas of the border that were deemed to be poorly guarded. They opened a camp on a low ridge, like 200 to 300 meters [218-328 yards] away from the border and are now combat ready,” the source said.
“They completed site preparation by November 30 and used rice straw and dried grass to camouflage themselves. The anti-aircraft gunners were told not to participate in 2020 winter military training, which starts today, but to focus all their efforts on border security,” said the source.
The source said that not only are the anti-aircraft gunners meant to prevent escapes, they are also there to keep a watch on special forces soldiers, who themselves have a secondary mission to keep a watchful eye on the regular border guards.
RFA reported in August that part of the reason why the special forces were sent was because authorities were growing mistrustful of the border guards, many of whom typically take bribes to look the other way when smugglers or refugees cross the border. The guards are known to have engaged in smuggling activities themselves.
“Now the border guards and special forces alike are nervous because they might be shot dead by the anti-aircraft guns,” said the source.
Another military source, in neighboring Ryanggang province, confirmed to RFA the same day that anti-aircraft units took combat-ready forward positions near the border there as well.
“The reason why the anti-aircraft units were deployed in some areas along the border is because of the gold smuggling incident in Hyesan in early November,” the second source said.
RFA reported on the incident, where two soldiers were caught moving gold bars into China in a border area near the city. Authorities then locked down the entire city, telling people that smugglers may have introduced coronavirus to the population.
The lockdown aided investigators, trapping six civilian smugglers in the city who were involved in the scheme. The investigation revealed that on multiple occasions, the smugglers were able to move gold bars to China and bring back cash worth about U.S. $6.5 million.
“Even though the special forces were deployed to the border on the orders of [North Korean Leader] Kim Jong Un, because of the Hyesan smuggling lockdown, authorities no longer trust the special forces,” the second source said.
“We know that the orders from the General Command say that the anti-aircraft guns should fire immediately at anything suspicious near the border without considering the situation or without first reporting to superiors, so now it’s not just residents that should stay away from the border, the guards and special forces should too.”