A thin young man, a military officer, buying goods at a market. Photographed in Hyesan City, Ryanggang Province, in August, 2013 (ASIAPRESS)

◆Burning mugwort to sterilize, soldiers placed in quarantine with just a cough

As soldiers live together for long periods of time, the military environment is highly conducive to the spread of coronavirus. Since last February, the Kim Jong-un regime has strictly controlled the military’s contact with the general public by forbidding soldiers to leave their units. It has been more than a year since the strict coronavirus countermeasures began. So what are the North Korean authorities' military coronavirus measures now? To find out, our reporting partner contacted military officials. (Kang Ji-won)

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According to our reporting partner living in North Hamgyong Province, who met with military personnel, the measures to separate soldiers from the general public are still strictly enforced. The reporting partner explained the following:

“The soldiers are still not allowed to leave their units at all and are rarely seen on the streets. Military officers with families are also banned from all places except their units and homes, and the barracks and officers’ house entrances are equipped with barricades to strictly check the approach of outsiders and the departure of family members.

There is strict supervision to prevent soldiers from sneaking out of the unit too. There are roll calls at midnight, and soldiers are checked at three-hour intervals (0:00, 3:00, and 6:00) to see if anyone has deserted or gone out without permission. If a soldier sneaks out of the unit, the entire company or platoon is forcibly quarantined.

The delivery of food supplies, which used to be done by soldiers, is now done by mobilizing ‘military laborers,’ civilians who perform miscellaneous tasks for the military units. The ‘military laborers’ are made to work before the soldiers' waking hours in order to minimize direct contact with the soldiers.

Also, to keep the soldiers from leaving the barracks as much as possible, this year they will not allow soldiers to collect firewood for boiling or to do farmwork in their fields.”


The text of the warning reads, "Any targets and livestock that enter our riverbanks of the Yalu and Tumen Rivers will be shot on sight.” Photographed at the end of August 2020. (ASIAPRESS)


◆Even officers' families are restricted from leaving home

The officers’ families are also strictly prohibited from contacting the general public.

According to the reporting partner, officers’ wives are not even allowed to go to the market. The wives are bundled into groups called 'family platoons' to be overseen, and two or three people selected from the 'family platoons' are sent to the market once a week to do the necessary shopping.

On the other hand, even though more than a year has passed since the strict coronavirus countermeasures were started, the material and equipment for sanitation and quarantining still seems to be in poor supply in the military units in North Hamgyong Province. A military official who provided information to our reporting partner, explained the following:

  • Mugwort is burned to disinfect materials inside the unit.
  • Ventilation and hand washing are strictly enforced, but there is no hot water even in winter.
  • There are some soldiers who wash their hands with urine, partly to prevent their skin from drying out from frequent hand washing.
  • One Chinese-made thermometer is supplied per company.
  • Medics measure soldiers’ body temperature every day and, if soldiers show symptoms as minor as a fever or cough, they will be placed in isolation rooms.
  • PCR testing does not seem to be conducted by the units.

Looking at the video of the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea held in early January, no one wore a mask at the meeting that Kim Jong-un attended. Even at the military parade and the photo shoot with Kim Jong-un afterwards, none of the thousands of soldiers were wearing masks either.

There must be thorough PCR testing to confirm zero possibility of coronavirus infection among those who meet Kim Jong-un. However, as we can see from the answers provided by military sources, sanitation and quarantining supplies are in short supply and of poor quality on military bases. As such, it seems that excessive and heavy-handed isolation orders are the regime’s continued method for overcoming the challenge.

Editor’s notes on North Korean reporters

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