This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Authorities in North Korea have begun threatening harsh punishments for residents caught smuggling goods to and from China, as earlier warnings went unheeded by desperate citizens, sources in the border area told RFA.
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in January, Beijing and Pyongyang closed their 880-mile border and suspended all trade to prevent the spread of the virus, but the closure had disastrous effects on an economy already crippled by international sanctions aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Citizens who made their living by trading with China, or by selling goods from China in local markets suddenly saw their livelihoods evaporate. With no other way to make ends meet, many ignored the restrictions and illegally crossed the border to smuggle in and out of China, an act that Pyongyang is now punishing with increasingly harsh measures, including public execution.
“Since last month, the judicial authorities intensified their efforts against smuggling at the border,” a resident of Ryanggang province in the country’s central northern region, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service Dec. 5.
“This is because there was a direct order from the Highest Dignity that a fierce struggle was needed to push back against the anti-socialist activities of smugglers during this period of ultra-high-level quarantine,” the source said, using an honorific term to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
In April, Pyongyang extended to the end of the year an “emergency quarantine posture” in effect since the beginning of the pandemic. Since then, it has used several incidents where people illegally crossed borders and returned to the county to introduce even stricter measures.
Fearful that frequent border crossers could bring the virus back with them from China, 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.
In November, Pyongyang deployed anti-aircraft units in some areas of the border not only to prevent civilians from crossing, but to stop corruption from soldiers stationed there who assist smugglers in exchange for bribes or engage in the activity themselves.
RFA reported earlier this month that after several smuggling incidents in October and November, North Korea increased this posture in late November to the “ultra-high-level,” and publicly executed a smuggler to drive the point home.
“They are now defining smuggling activities at the border as reactionary. They are holding lecture sessions, threatening residents that smugglers will face punishment without mercy,” the source said.
“According to the lecture materials sent out by the Ryanggang Provincial Party Committee to the local party committees, smugglers are like poisonous mushrooms, who have turned their backs on the party. They stress that smuggling is an unforgivable reactionary act, citing how it was smugglers who caused the recent lockdown of the entire city of Hyesan,” the source said.
RFA reported in November authorities sealed off the entire city of 200,000, allowing none to enter or exit, after two members of the military were caught trying to smuggle gold bars across the border into China. After detaining one of the soldiers, investigations revealed that six civilians were involved in the scheme, and they had moved gold worth about U.S. $6.5 million into China over five previous trips.
“The lecture materials pointed out how smuggling at the border is an anti-state and anti-socialist act that must never be tolerated in order to protect the lives of the people. Anyone who is preparing for or who has been involved in smuggling are asked to make a confession at their local law enforcement agency,” the source said.
Another resident of Ryanggang, who requested anonymity to speak freely, confirmed the lectures to RFA.
“The lectures show that the authorities are acknowledging that both large and small-scale smuggling is still happening at the border,” the second source said.
“Even with the increasingly vicious crackdowns, residents who make their living from small-scale smuggling are still risking their lives to smuggle. The authorities say they will go easy on anyone who confesses, but who in their right mind would do such a thing in this fearful atmosphere?” said the second source.
The source said that during weekly meetings held by companies, citizens’ organizations and neighborhood watch units, leaders are asking attendees to confess to any and all past involvement with smuggling.
“The party has created a brutal atmosphere against cross-border smuggling and warns of merciless punishment. Who would want to come forward and confess? With the border closed under the pretext of the emergency coronavirus quarantine, residents are struggling to make ends meet. They have no choice but to risk their lives to smuggle, because they are dead either way.”