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North Korea orders arrest of armed border guard who escaped to China

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), also, North Korea, People's Army guards march in formation to their appointed posts during a repatriation ceremony in the Panmunjom Joint Security Area. (TSGT James Mossman/U.S. Air Force)
October 25, 2021

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

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the extraterritorial arrest of an armed border guard who was tempted by the bright lights of far wealthier China and fled across the border, sources in both countries told RFA.

The guard was stationed in Musan county, along the border in North Hamgyong province, in the country’s northeast. Armed with an automatic rifle and about 30 rounds of ammunition, he escaped while on night duty on Sept. 30 across the river to China’s Jilin province, in the vicinity of the city of Helong, sources said.

“The deserter was in his 20s and was known to have served in the border guard for the past six years,” a resident of the county told RFA’s Korean Service Oct. 9.

“He didn’t have any particular conflict with his superiors and had faithfully performed his military service without even a minor incident,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

The border guard complained to his peers about North Korea closing the border with China since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, the source said. The closure, along with a total suspension of trade with China, devastated the North Korean economy and has led to food shortages and starvation deaths.

“Fellow soldiers testified that he envied how developed China appeared across the border, right in front of him as he worked every day.”

Military Security Command began a two-week-long manhunt to arrest soldier as soon as he turned up missing, but they were unable to find him on the North Korean side of the border.

They then reported the incident to the central government, a military official in North Hamgyong told RFA Oct. 16. It was then that Kim Jong Un issued a priority order to arrest the deserter.

“The Military Security Command organized and dispatched an arrest team to China. They thoroughly search every train station and bus stop along the route that the deserter might have traveled,” said the official, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“The military authorities also sent an official letter to the Chinese border forces across from Musan and the Chinese police, informing them of the identity and appearance of the armed deserter and requesting their cooperation,” the official said.

A resident of Musan confirmed to RFA that North Korean authorities dispatched an arrest team to China.

“When the incident was reported to the Supreme Commander [Kim Jong Un], he branded the deserter as a traitor to the nation and ordered that they track him down until they find him,” the Musan resident said.

“The authorities are sensitive to this case because a few years ago, there was an armed soldier who escaped due to hunger. He entered a Chinese village and robbed and killed an innocent Chinese when he was caught,” said the Musan resident.

The incident became a diplomatic issue between the two countries, and it was considered by North Korea to be a disgrace, the Musan resident said.

“Since that incident, the leadership has repeatedly emphasized the importance of strengthening border blockades and preemptively stopping the escape of North Korean border guards so that no one can harm the stability of the regime,” said the Musan resident.

Because of the seriousness of cross-border escapes, military officials are punished if even ordinary civilians cross the border on their watch, the Musan resident said.

“As the escape of a soldier with 30 live ammunition and weapons occurred, the military authorities are treating this case as a political case. So, we don’t know what punishment the officials of the deserter’s border guard unit will face in the future,” the source said.

RFA reported in March that a group of six North Korean soldiers guarding the border abandoned their posts and escaped across the river in Ryanggang province, near the city of Hyesan.

Sources in that report said the six decided to leave because they were overworked preventing the spread of the pandemic and underfed because of the border closure.