A thin-looking officer shops for groceries at a market. Photograph taken in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, in August 2013 (ASIAPRESS)

With the Chinese border remaining sealed to block the spread of coronavirus, the North Korean economy continues to deteriorate. According to a reporting partner speaking from Ryanggang Province in early April, a growing number of North Korean citizens are now taking the risk of illegally crossing into China to smuggle or steal.

In late January, the Kim Jong-un regime sealed the border with China to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. As such, all trade was suspended. The daily commodities for which North Koreans relied upon Chinese producers to supply were blocked at the border. In addition, movement controls were also tightened, paralyzing all logistics.

In late March, trade at the border between Sinuiju and Dandong was partially resumed. However, the blockade, which was in place for over 2 months, had already dealt a serious blow to North Korea’s poorest classes, who had been making their living from trading and transporting goods.

In desperation, some have begun crossing the border themselves. For many, their objective is smuggling. The reporting partner explained, “With orders from merchants, the smugglers go across to buy shoes or clothing, miscellaneous goods, and cooking oils from counterparts on the Chinese side. With the coronavirus situation in China more or less settled, the border security forces have also relaxed their discipline. In fact, smuggling is being resumed with the soldiers’ cooperation.” According to the reporting partner, soldiers are starving as well.

As part of the regime’s coronavirus prevention measures, the North Korean authorities had earlier tightened control of the border area and warned that those caught smuggling or even approaching the Yalu River would be punished under military law.
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