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Military units and police have been ordered to open fire on anyone who goes within one kilometre of the 900-mile Sino-Korean border for any reason, the US-backed website Radio Free Asia has reported. A source said: “As imports from China have become more expensive and difficult to obtain in marketplaces, residents now living in miserable conditions are risking their lives to smuggle goods across the river from China to earn large sums of money.
At the end of last month, seven North Korean residents of Hyesan City, close to the border, were arrested for smuggling, a second insider said.
He added: “They avoided execution but were sent to political prison camps because they had smuggled during the highest level of the emergency quarantine system.
“They were sentenced to life in prison, and their families were sent into internal exile in the mountain areas.”
“Residents are protesting their punishment, though, saying that death would be better than life in a prison camp, and that the harsh reality of having trouble finding daily food is the reason for the smuggling on the border.”
The order covers the full length of the border, in the provinces of North Hamgyong, North Pyongan, Chagang and Ryanggang.
Although China and North Korea suspended trade and shut the border at the start of the pandemic in January, it remains porous as a result off North Korea’s heavy reliance on goods smuggled to and from its superpower neighbour.
Since the start of the year, there have been several instances of border crossings, including the return of a refugee who had previously escaped, but was able to return undetected.
Supreme leader Kim Jong-un was so infuriated he ordered the military unit responsible for guarding the part of the border he crossed to be disbanded.
North Korean elite special forces troops were also sent to “assist” border guard units posted there, but insiders suggested their true purpose was to watch the guards for corruption, because smugglers often pay the guards to look the other way when they sending or receiving shipments.
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In a separate incident, a 25-year-old platoon leader in a border guard unit, was arrested in mid-August, also over smuggling allegations.
RFA’s source said: “He received 500 kilograms of saccharine from a Chinese smuggler and handed it over to a local resident while the highest-level emergency quarantine for the coronavirus was in force.”
The soldier was swiftly detained – although he is likely to avoid “severe punishment”.
The source added: “Some residents believe that the platoon leader of the border guards was involved in smuggling not to secure food for himself, but for his troops.”
Tensions in the border region were highlighted last month when North soldiers gunned down three Chinese fishermen operating illegally in the Hermit State’s waters, RFA reported.
A source in North Korea’s North Pyongan province said such “untoward incidents” were becoming more frequent because North Korean soldiers had less money from bribes than previously as a result of the closure of the Sino-North Korean border in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The insider added: “Military units have become even more brutal since they are barred from going out to sea to earn money because of COVID-19.
“The fact that they are willing to commit piracy and even murder has left many Chinese people frightened.”
North Korea still insists it is virus-free even though the Government actually advised citizens in April that the illness was spreading in the capital and two other regions of the country.
Members of Kim Jong-un’s entourage have been pictured wearing masks – but not Kim himself.
No cases have been officially confirmed.
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