A North Korean smuggler was recently shot dead by the North Korean border patrol in Yanggang Province following an announcement earlier this month that anyone caught in designated “strict security zones” near the border will be shot at on sight, Daily NK has learned. 

“At around 11 PM on Sep. 14, a smuggler in his 30s was shot and killed by border guards in a mountainous area in Taehongdan near the [Sino-North Korean] border,” a source in Yanggang Province told Daily NK last Thursday. “Local residents who heard rumors about the incident are frightened to hear that [the border patrol] actually opened fire and killed somebody.” 

According to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the smuggler had conspired to smuggle blueberries across the border with a deputy squad commander (staff sergeant) from the Storm Corps, which was recently deployed to Taehongdan County. The smuggler reportedly carried 20 kilograms of blueberries in a sack across the border, but was discovered by a border patrol unit as he returned across the border and was fired upon. 

The smuggler had once served in the Storm Corps for two years before being discharged due to a physical ailment. After returning to his hometown in Yanggang Province, where his father, a widower, lived, he reportedly began full-fledged smuggling activities.

Smuggling over the border, however, had become more difficult after the border had become completely shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the Storm Corps deputy squad commander, a former colleague in the unit, was dispatched to Yanggang Province as part of efforts to close the border, the pair decided to begin smuggling together. 

An image showing parts of a recent order handed down by the Ministry of Social Security mentioning (circled in red) that anyone found in the “buffer zone” will be shot at on sight. / Image: Daily NK

“When the deputy squad commander was on duty at a border sentry post, the smuggler donned a military uniform to disguise himself as a soldier and snuck into China after passing through six layers of heavy border security,” the source told Daily NK. “The deputy squad commander accompanied him on the way back [from China] to look out for trouble, but they were spotted by border guards and shot at.” 

The border guards initially fired three blanks at “dark objects” moving suspiciously near the border, but then switched to firing live bullets when the “objects” continued to move. 

The smuggler was killed on the spot, while the Storm Corps deputy squad commander suffered a wound to his left thigh before being arrested. 

The source noted that this incident led to a confrontation between the Ministry of State Security and Military Security Command (MSC). Ministry officials claimed the case fell within their jurisdiction because the incident took place near the border. MSC officials, for their part, sought to handle it on their own because the deputy squad commander is part of the Storm Corps. 

Ultimately, ministry officials conducted an investigation of the incident before handing the case over to the MSC. The deputy squad commander is reportedly shackled to a bed at a MSC facility while being both interrogated and treated for his wounds.

During the investigation, the MSS discovered that the sack carried by the smuggler contained Chinese currency, a Chinese laptop, new clothes, and shoes that appear to have come from a private home in China. The source told Daily NK that the authorities believe the smuggler may have stolen the items from a house in China before returning to North Korea.

Ministry of State Security officials have verbally expressed gratitude toward the squad commander of the border post that opened fire, as well as the junior border guard who fired the shots. Both are set to be rewarded with a “special vacation” prior to the military’s winter training period once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. 

According to the source, some locals have been shocked by the incident, saying that they thought the authorities had simply threatened to fire on border-crossers and that it was terrifying to imagine the military actually turning its guns on its own citizens. 

“Locals usually sell blueberries, pine nuts and medicinal herbs [to China] during September and October to earn enough to get through the next year, but the tense atmosphere near the border has made smuggling unthinkable,” the source said. “People are despondent about their prospects for getting through winter and making a living next year.”

CORRECTION: A past version of this article stated that people entering the buffer zone would be “shot on sight.” This has been changed to “shot at on sight” to better reflect the original in Korean. 

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

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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.