North Korea has ordered border patrol troops to fire flares instead of live ammunition out of fear that “unconditionally firing on” intruders along the border is harming the country’s international image.

A source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Tuesday that the government had ordered that all border patrol units along the Tumen River from Hoeryong to Musan – and all the way to Hujang (Kimhyongjik County) and Sinpa (Kimjongsuk County) in Yanggang Province – to use flares to “reduce incidents of reckless firing.”

According to the source, during a recent review of the border patrol’s performance over the last two years, North Korea’s leadership took serious issue with the troops, who have recklessly opened fire whenever they “sensed a human presence” along the China-North Korea border, which has remained closed for the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Following the establishment of a one to two kilometer buffer zone along the border, border patrol troops have been “unconditionally” opening fire when they “sensed” persons or even animals entering the zone. During the review, however, the authorities criticized this behavior as “straying from the mission of a ‘people’s army’ charged with protecting the peace of the nation and people.”

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A border patrol checkpoint in Pungso County, Yanggang Province. This photo was taken in February 2019. / Image: Daily NK

That is, the government pointed out that threatening people with guns worsens relations between the military and civilians, intensifies public hostility towards the government, and damages the nation’s international image. 

On Jan. 17, the government ordered all border patrol units in North Hamgyong and Yanggang provinces to stop randomly opening fire and switch to flares from Jan. 18, concluding that the “grave behavior” on the part of the troops could not continue.

According to the source, concerns remain among North Korean leaders, however, that slackening crackdowns and control over the border could make it more difficult for the border patrol to conduct surveillance and lead to an increase in defections, smuggling, and other illegal activity.

Moreover, North Korea’s leadership ordered the border patrol to “properly analyze their targets” when they have no choice but to use their weapons, and to “mercilessly kill” those who refuse to comply with orders or resist to the very end.

Based on the source’s report, the leadership emphasized that border patrol troops should not rely solely on guns and other weaponry, but conduct “prompt surveillance” using cameras and in line with the communist party’s policies and intentions. The leadership further emphasized that troops should react quickly but “without the sound of gunfire” when they detect something out of the ordinary on the border.

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Jong So Yong is one of Daily NK's freelance reporters. Questions about her articles can be directed to