This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Authorities in North Korea are further tightening security on the Sino-Korean border ahead of a ruling party gathering in January, the latest of a series of increasingly harsh border strictures made in 2020 which the government claims are to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, sources in the country told RFA.
North Korea is set to convene the Eighth Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party next month, possibly as early as New Year’s Day. Analysts have said that civilian and military parades are planned, as well as an unveiling of a new five-year economic plan by the country’s leader Kim Jong Un.
“From the 24th, an inspection team of the security command was dispatched to the border area. These days we don’t even see a shadow of anyone going near the border anyway,” a resident of Ryanggang province, in the central northern part of the country told RFA’s Korean Service on Dec. 27.
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in January, Beijing and Pyongyang closed down their entire 880-mile border and suspended all trade, a move that had a disastrous impact on local North Korean market economies that rely on trading goods imported or smuggled from China and depriving sellers of the few North Korean goods going the other way of access to the Chinese market.
Fearful that frequent border crossers could bring the virus back with them, North Korea has imposed a series of increasingly strict measures to stop those that continued to sneak into China.
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.
Starting October 1, authorities imposed a curfew forbidding any movement in areas near the border after 6 p.m.
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. It then redefined smuggling as a reactionary crime and even publicly executed a convicted smuggler to drive the point home.
In December authorities sent students from its National Security College to understand the psychology of border area residents, which some residents saw as a thinly veiled threat, as they were being watched by future secret agents.
Despite these extensive efforts to prevent illegal border crossing, many North Koreans are still willing to take the risk, because they see no other way to survive.
The source said that the increased attention to the border area is aimed at not only preventing an influx of coronavirus, but also at preventing potential leaks of state secrets over Chinese mobile phones.
“With the security command inspection team there, absolutely no noticeable movement is happening in the border villages, even in broad daylight, before the 6 p.m. curfew begins. Residents are anxious because they are inspecting the border villages without revealing when the inspection period will end,” the source said.
“The inspection team has secured a list of phone brokers who make money by arranging calls with people in South Korea over the Chinese cellular network. They are conducting intensive investigations on the brokers,” said the source.
Arranging calls and remittances between North Koreans and their family members who escaped to South Korea used to be a very profitable business for the brokers, who charge exorbitant fees to deliver money smuggled in from China to recipients inside North Korea. If caught, a small bribe used to be enough to get officials to look the other way, but the heightened security has shut down the brokers for now.
“The phone brokers… have recently stopped their activities because of all the strict crackdowns. Residents who got their living expenses from their family members in South Korea are suffering with severe difficulties because phone remittance is not allowed,” the source said.
“The current climate for brokers is so brutal. Even the phone brokers who have a connection to powerful government institutions can’t arrange these kinds of things anymore,” said the source.
Another source, a resident of neighboring North Hamgyong province, told RFA that even soldiers stationed at the border are under inspection, so they are performing their duties to a greater degree than normal.
“The guards are more thoroughly checking the identifications of residents and restricting access to the border areas. In the case of residents who have been making ends meet by selling goods in the local markets, the situation is dire because the number of customers is way down,” the second source said.
“Since anyone violating the 6 p.m. curfew is immediately arrested, the merchants are having a hard time making a living,” said the second source.
With each restriction the government places on residents living near the border, life becomes harder, according to the second source.
“The Central Committee does not care about the difficulties of border area residents… They face a situation where they will have to prepare for a second Arduous March,” the second source said, referring to the 1994 to 1998 North Korean famine that killed millions, as much as 10 percent of the population by some estimates.