All of Chagang Province has reportedly been put under lockdown just five days after the province’s Wiwon County was put under lockdown due to suspected cases of COVID-19. North Korean authorities have apparently expanded the scope of the lockdown to all of Chagang Province because a border guard in Wiwon County who may be infected with the virus has disappeared. 

A source in Chagang Province told Daily NK on Wednesday that “all of Chagang Province” has been under lockdown since Saturday after a border guard platoon sergeant who “had come into contact with other border guards who had died after displaying symptoms of COVID-19” left his post. “[Concern over his whereabouts have grown] ever since the authorities found out that the platoon sergeant roamed about the province while he may have been harboring a [COVID-19] infection,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

According to the source, the platoon sergeant often visited Songwon County on the sly with two other members of his unit starting in late October. Claiming they were getting peppers from a farm in Songwon County so that Ministry of State Security cadres could make kimchi to eat during the winter months, they formed a so-called “pepper collection team” with the tacit approval of their superiors.

In fact, using his acquaintance with the son of a cadre at the farm in Songwon County, the platoon sergeant reportedly did personal business with the farm and lined his pockets by selling some of the peppers he received in local markets.

When Wiwon County was suddenly put under lockdown, the platoon sergeant and two other members of his unit were unable to return to their base from Songwon County. They faced even greater difficulties when their unit was put into quarantine and additional Storm Corps troops were deployed to Wiwon County.

chagang food shortages signs
In this undated photo, a train can be seen travelling in an area of Chagang Province near the Sino-North Korean border. / Image: Daily NK

The platoon sergeant fled, fearing punishment because he had not been at his post. In fact, he was a prime candidate for quarantine as he had come into contact with some of the other border guards who had died after displaying symptoms of COVID-19, according to the source. 

“The two other soldiers who formed the pepper collection team with the platoon sergeant were caught and investigated by the Storm Corps,” said the source. “According to their testimony, the platoon sergeant had been traveling around Chagang Province every day from late October with a driver he’d gotten to know from a foreign exchange-earning business in Songwon County. They even said he had been to Yangdok, South Pyongan Province, too.”

Ultimately, North Korean authorities put Songwon County under lockdown just like Wiwon County. And then from Saturday, they put all of Chagang Province under lockdown.

The source explained that in Wiwon and Songwon counties, movement within jurisdictions as well as movement in and out of them are banned. In the rest of Chagang Province’s cities and counties, meanwhile, people may freely move about downtown, but movement across city and county borders is no longer allowed. 

The whereabouts of the platoon sergeant remains unknown. Believing he has not yet left Chagang Province, North Korean authorities are intensifying their monitoring of railways and roads inside the province while bolstering patrols on the Sino-North Korean border. This suggests they are open to the possibility that he may try to defect across the border.  

“There are a lot of munitions factories in Chagang Province, and most residents of the province work as laborers in them,” said the source. “If the infectious disease [COVID-19] spreads because of this incident and the region goes into an even more intense lockdown, the munition factories could come to a halt. If that happens, the national economy could take a major hit, so the entire province was put under lockdown – the first time this has happened.” 

Meanwhile, three battalions of specialized combat engineers, an armored battalion with the 425th Training Camp and two mechanized battalions have been deployed to the border area in Chagang Province.

The border region in Chagang Province has many remote, uninhabited areas, which means there are fewer surveillance cameras, electrified wire fences and landmines than other stretches of the border. The North Korean authorities have used the incident to deploy new military units to reinforce the existing personnel and equipment monitoring the border.

North Korean authorities seem to have deployed units with tracked armored vehicles or large trucks with dual tires that are capable of treading through Chagang’s mountainous terrain. Daily NK’s source in the province, however, said the sudden appearance of armored vehicles has made local residents anxious, with some wondering if a war had broken out.

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

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