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FILE PHOTO: A sentry post on the Sino-North Korean border in Sakju County, North Pyongan Province. (Daily NK)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently ordered a thorough investigation into the defection of five North Koreans in China along with severe punishments of those involved in the incident. 

Kim issued the order on Saturday to the Ministry of State Security, a source in North Korea told Daily NK on Tuesday. 

Kim previously declared North Korea’s transition to a “maximum emergency epidemic prevention system” after acknowledging a COVID-19 outbreak on May 12.

Following this declaration, the country’s authorities ordered nationwide travel bans and tighter patrols along the China-North Korea border. The recent defections have reportedly caused embarrassment among North Korea’s leadership given that the defectors somehow skirted the ban on movement and side-stepped strengthened patrols in the border region before entering Dandong. 

Kim’s order has also called for the punishment of those responsible for the incident under “wartime law” given that the entire North Korean government is now operating under a “wartime system” led by the State Emergency Anti-Epidemic Command. 

The Ministry of State Security has responded to Kim’s order by tightening border patrols in North Pyongan Province, Yanggang Province, and other areas. It has also opened investigations into all personnel at Ministry of State Security checkpoints (No. 10 checkpoints) in the Sinuiju area, which is where the defections took place.

The authorities may hand down collective punishments over the incident, netting not only ordinary soldiers at the checkpoints, but also regiment, company, and battalion commanders. 

Daily NK understands that all personnel at street corner checkpoints on roads heading in the direction of China – including those in Sinuiju’s Sokha (Pihyon), Sangdan, Hadan and Paeksa areas – have already been replaced. 

North Korean authorities believe that the defectors would have had a difficult time making their way into Dandong from Sinuiju without help. That is because they would have had to make it past several Ministry of State Security checkpoints, along with those operated by disease control authorities. 

North Korean authorities are conducting a census in and around the city under the theory that the defectors could be residents of the China-North Korea border region. They also believe somebody inside the Ministry of State Security could have helped the defectors cross over the border. 

A preliminary investigation by the authorities has found that the five people who defected likely left from the villages of Sangdan-ri or Hadan-ri on Wihwa Island on the mouth of the Yalu River near Sinuiju. North Korean officials also believe the defectors are locals who had good knowledge of the region’s geography and waterways gleaned from previous smuggling activities in the area. 

While there has been speculation that the defectors entered Dandong near Hwanggumpyong or Gulouzi, North Korean authorities believe this unlikely since a Korean People’s Army battalion is stationed on Hwanggumpyong.

In fact, a North Korean investigation concluded that the defectors did not cross into China through Hwanggumpyong or Gulouzi. 

Meanwhile, Chinese security authorities shared the results of their investigation into the identities of the defectors with North Korea.

The Chinese investigation revealed that the defectors had no intention to go to South Korea or another country. As a result, the Chinese government may simply classify them as illegal aliens and hand them back to North Korea.

The source speculated that the defectors will face the country’s “ultimate punishment” (execution) if repatriated to the North. That is because the defectors will likely be punished in accordance with “wartime law” and due to the fact they have been confirmed as being infected with COVID-19. 

“If they are handed back to North Korea, there is no doubt that they will be executed in accordance with military law,” he added.

Translated by David Black. Edited by Robert Lauler. 

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.