In North Hamgyong Province, North Korean authorities ordered the lifting of social distancing measures on Jan. 20 only to reinstate them nine days later on Jan. 29, Daily NK has learned.

“Social distancing [measures] were lifted on Jan. 20 by the government in consideration of the difficulties [that the measures] created toward people’s lives, but this created such disorder that the government then ordered a further intensification of disease control measures on Jan. 29 under the belief that [people] would be exposed to the threat of the infectious disease [COVID-19],” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Tuesday.

According to the source, the authorities lifted the social distancing measures while claiming that “our country has no COVID-19 cases,” and even rescinded measures restricting the movement of people within administrative districts during certain times of the day. The lifting of these measures allowed people to travel within cities, counties, and other administrative districts regardless of the time of day.

On Jan. 29, however, the authorities again imposed social distancing measures. These new measures were more intense than before and restricted people from leaving their homes, the source said.

Onsong County, North Hamgyong Province. / Image: Daily NK

“After the social distancing [measures] were lifted, people took their lives in their own hands to conduct smuggling with China, and [some] even tried to run away across the border [to defect into China],” the source told Daily NK. “[The authorities] rescinded the order to lift [social distancing measures] as part of efforts to prevent these incidents from occurring, and that’s why they ordered even stronger social distancing [measures than before].”

The reimposition of social distancing measures may have been related to the lockdown order the authorities made on Jan. 27 in response to a smuggling incident in Yanggang Province. The authorities appear to have strengthened social distancing measures in North Hamgyong Province while ordering a lockdown in Yanggang Province’s Hyesan and Samjiyon areas.

North Korean authorities are also prohibiting the sale of handmade food at local markets as part of efforts to prevent the spread of disease, the source further reported.

“There was an order completely banning the sale of all foods made by individuals sold at markets,” the source said. “If these foods disappear from the markets, however, the authorities believed that it could cause trouble for ordinary people, so they told merchants to sell well-packaged food products such as alcohol, rice cakes and tofu while strictly adhering to sanitization and disease control procedures in place at specific factories and enterprises.”

The order banning the sale of food is nonetheless having an immense impact on people’s lives, according to the source. Those particularly hurt by the food ban are people who have used the byproducts created while brewing alcohol (lees) and the scraps left over from making rice cakes, tofu, and other foods. These people typically use these byproducts to feed livestock they raise at home.

While people cannot openly complain about the situation, they are wondering why the government is claiming there are no COVID-19 patients as the authorities make life even harder for them. They are also complaining that the authorities are “making up rules without understanding how people are really living,” the source said.

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Kim Yoo Jin is one of Daily NK's freelance journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to