Military sources say life as a border guard is no longer as cushy as it was before coronavirus.

By Yonggun Shin


Radio Free Asia (24.03.2021) – – A group of six North Korean soldiers guarding the Yalu River border with China abandoned their posts and escaped across the river early this month, sources in the North Korean military told RFA.


The six soldiers were stationed near at the border in the country’s northern Ryanggang province, near the city of Hyesan. Sources told RFA that their increased work schedule and meager supply since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 left them hungry and overworked, but authorities have yet to identify the motive for their escape.


“On the 3rd… six soldiers of the 25th Border Guard brigade escaped with their weapons. It’s caused quite the stir among not only the border security bureau, but also the troops near the Hyesan area,” a military official from Hyesan told RFA’s Korean Service Monday.


“The six were on nighttime stakeout at the border on the night of the 2nd and did not show up after their scheduled return time in the early morning. A search team combed the entire border area looking for them. It was determined that the six had crossed the river with their weapons and escaped to China,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.


Soldiers in the North Korean military are not adequately supplied by the government. It is not uncommon to see soldiers in uniform working on farms to make enough food to supply their unit.


But under normal circumstances, soldiers posted at the border are in a relatively privileged situation and can easily find ways to make enough money to support themselves. Many accept bribes to look the other way when smugglers shuttle goods into and out of the country, while others do the smuggling themselves.


However, smuggling came to a near halt at the start of coronavirus pandemic. In January 2020, Beijing and Pyongyang shut down the Sino-Korean border and suspended all trade, with disastrous effect on the North Korean economy.


To further deter people from crossing the border Pyongyang in the summer established a kill zone, warning that anyone found within one kilometer of the border would be shot on sight.


Authorities also ordered border security to lay land mines along some parts of the border and sent special forces to keep a watchful eye on the border guards.


“Usually, border guard soldiers are in collusion with professional smugglers and bundle merchants, and they live better than soldiers in other regions. But the coronavirus outbreak has been raging for more than a year, so smuggling has completely stopped, and they are suffering from hunger these days,” the source said.


“Both professional and amateur smugglers can’t even approach the border in times like this. There’s a shoot-to-kill order from the General Command, and the intensity of border security is much higher than in the past. The soldiers are all tired,” said the source.


Another military source from Ryanggang Tuesday confirmed that the six soldiers from the 25th Brigade had escaped to China by crossing the Yalu River with their automatic rifles.


“As this incident was reported to the Central Committee, the area around Hyesan and the border area was completely turned upside down,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.


“Border security command and a search team from the State Security department searched the border area and the city of Hyesan, but they concluded that the six border guard soldiers had already escaped to China,” the second source said.


The second source said that the border guards are in such a privileged position that only those with good connections can join their ranks.


“They are better supplied, and they can more easily make extra income than other military units. Border guards don’t actually guard the border, they take money from Chinese and North Korean smugglers who illegally cross the border. They lived quite well before the coronavirus,” said the second source.


“The soldiers’ motives for escaping North Korea are still unknown, but people assume that they either accidentally crossed the river to steal food because they were hungry, or they might have been planning to escape the country and finally executed their plan while on nighttime stakeout duty,” said the second source.


The second source said that the border security bureau is in a state of chaos over the escape. One soldier escaping would be a problem, but six escaping together makes the case serious enough that the Central Committee of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party is paying close attention.


“The General Command notified the Chinese border guards and requested cooperation in the search and arrest of the escaped soldiers, and China seems to be taking this case very seriously. Since the six soldiers are armed and dangerous, the Chinese guards must be very nervous about what could happen,” said the second source.


“Residents of the border area have had a very difficult time making a living in the era of the coronavirus. The escape of the six soldiers has only increased tension in the border area with more frequent and thorough inspections,” the second source said.


The six escapees are not the only ones responsible for their escape, according to the second source.


“Even if they are caught, their entire company will be disbanded, and their commanders and anyone else involved will have to take responsibility, so it will be a bit of a bloodbath here for a while.”


Photo credits: Reuters