A lockdown order has reportedly been issued in Wiwon County, Chagang Province, after several deaths of individuals displaying symptoms of COVID-19. With deaths occurring in military units based in the county, which borders China, entire military and border patrol units have apparently been put into group quarantine.

A source in Chagang Province told Daily NK on Tuesday that the Central Committee and Central Anti-epidemic Committee on Nov. 16 issued an order “locking down Wiwon County for a month” to the provincial and county parties as well as to the provincial anti-epidemic committee. Accordingly, residents of the county are unable to leave their homes and their movements are being strictly controlled. 

According to the source, prior to the lockdown, there were a series of deaths of individuals displaying suspected symptoms of COVID-19. The matter was dealt with especially seriously after members of the so-called Storm Corps, deployed to the county to seal the frontier, along with members of the border patrol, died.

“In Wiwon Country, you have the Wiwon Dam between [North] Korea and China, and people can go back and forth on the bridge over the dam,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Because official smuggling also takes place there, it was relatively less closed off. At the beginning of this month, an official smuggler was put into home quarantine after showing a slight fever, but ultimately he died on Nov. 9.”

The source said afterwards, residents complaining of fever and other symptoms of COVID-19 appeared one after another, and the entire county was eventually put under lockdown.

In this undated photograph, North Korean soldiers are seen in North Pyongan Province. / Image: Daily NK

Moreover, three members of the Storm Corps deployed to Wiwon County died early this month after displaying suspected symptoms of COVID-19. The soldiers, who had been suffering from tuberculosis and asthma, were reportedly diagnosed with “sore throats.” Afterwards, however, they complained of respiratory distress and fevers, and just a couple of days later they were dead.

North Korean authorities cremated their bodies and sent the bone powder to their families in envelopes, apparently leading some North Koreans to suspect the deaths were from the “infectious disease” (COVID-19). In principle, soldiers who die while on duty are buried on a mountain behind their base, but since these cases were handled differently, rumors have spread.  

Additionally, the source said two malnourished border guards stationed in Wiwon County recently died after displaying high fevers.

The unit’s hygiene officer gave them fever reducers, judging them to be suffering from common colds. However, their fevers did not break for several days, and they died while being transported to a military infirmary. Rumors that the “infectious disease” had spread within the county proliferated even further when it was learned that the bodies of the border guards had been cremated, too.

“These incidents were reported through the provincial anti-epidemic committee to the Central Anti-epidemic Committee, and was passed up to the Central Committee and the Supreme Leader [Kim Jong Un], where it was ultimately decided to impose a lockdown,” said the source. “A team of five to seven workers from the Central Anti-epidemic Committee has been sent to Wiwon County to provide onsite guidance, and they are making real-time reports on the situation to Pyongyang.”

Additionally, officials from the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces Defense Command and the Central Military Commission have also reportedly gone to Wiwon Country to provide guidance to the military in the area in cooperation with public health officials. 

“With suspected COVID-19 deaths occurring in military units, members of the local Storm Corps contingents and border guards have been quarantined,” said the source. “This is the first time entire groups of soldiers have been quarantined after a suspected infection in a unit tasked with garrisoning and patrolling the border region.”

The source said that with the local Storm Corps and border patrol being put into isolation, border patrol duties in Wiwon County are currently being handled by Storm Corps personnel who had been sent as reinforcements.

“About 1,000 members of the Storm Corps sent from their command post in Tokchon, South Pyongan Province, are filling up the space left empty by the quarantined Storm Corps and border patrol officers,” said the source. “Only these newly deployed members of the Storm Corps are patrolling the border in Wiwon County. Not even a single member of the border patrol is on duty.”

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Ha Yoon Ah is Daily NK's editor-in-chief. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.