North Korean soldiers deployed to the Sino-North Korean border to enforce the COVID-19 “border blockade” are suffering from worsening food shortages with the arrival of the spring. Locals are reportedly expressing anxiety that hungry soldiers might attack ordinary people’s homes to steal food.

“The soldiers from the Storm Corps and the Seventh Corps deployed to the border area were given food supplies until March of this year. However, after the winter drills ended and spring arrived, they started receiving less food and running out of banchan [side dishes] in April,” a source in Chagang Province told Daily NK on Tuesday. “Locals are trembling with fear that soldiers might turn into thieves and break into their houses while they are sleeping to kill people and steal food.”

In the second half of last year, North Korean authorities deployed inland military units deemed to have especially strong ideological backgrounds to all border areas to strengthen disease control measures. While on duty at the guard posts and bunkers along the Yalu and Tumen rivers, soldiers have been monitoring and cracking down on illegal activities like smuggling and defection. 

North Korean authorities guaranteed food supplies to the inland troops because they were deployed to border regions under the special circumstances of COVID-19. However, as the prolonged deployment stretches on and transportation and supply problems continue to worsen, the soldiers’ meals have continued to decline in quality and quantity.

“The Storm Corps command is located in Tokchon, while that of the Seventh Corps is in Hamhung,” the source said. “The continuous extension of the temporary border placement and the long distances that they must traverse to deliver supplies seems to be taking its toll on both commands…this fatigue has led to rumors suggesting they may withdraw.

“There haven’t been any specific orders from the authorities regarding a withdrawal. However, some people say that the troops deployed at the border will be withdrawn at different times before the summer military exercises or after the concrete barriers and high-voltage wires under construction at the border are around 80% complete,” the source added. 

Morale among the soldiers also appears to be falling. In March, after sensing the waning of ideological resolve among the soldiers, security and political officers suddenly ordered the soldiers to record and report on the moves made by other soldiers and their units without exception. As a result of this order, soldiers record everything that is going on and are not even letting harmless jokes slide.

special patrols coronavirus outbreak smuggler mobile phones strict smuggler border
A border patrol checkpoint in Pungso County, Ryanggang Province. This photo was taken in February 2019. / Image: Daily NK

“This is an attempt [by the authorities] to prevent the corruption of soldiers’ ideology during their first assignment to the border,” the source explained. “The soldiers have seen, heard, and felt [the shift] in the situation on the border. They think it’s possible things won’t go back to the way they were before, but they are watching what they say.” 

Meanwhile, the deployment of construction troops to the border to build concrete barriers and high-voltage wires has led to an increasing sense of uneasiness among locals.

The construction troops working at the border in Chagang Province currently receive 600 grams of corn rice, along with cabbage soup, salted radish, and other side dishes as part of their rations. However, locals suspect that the authorities may reduce food supplies to the soldiers within a month or two.

Distressed locals have reportedly made comments that “if the state doesn’t supply [the soldiers] with enough [food], the soldiers will break into people’s houses and raze the locals’ supply of chickens, rabbits, dogs, and other livestock to the ground to make up for [the lack of rations]. When autumn comes, they will shake us down for  corn, beans, peppers, cabbages, and radishes.”

“Smuggling is how people in the border areas make a living, so of course they are not exactly pleased about the soldiers coming in to stop them from doing their job,” the source said. “If the locals can’t smuggle, they have to make a living by farming in the mountains, but even there, soldiers wander around for food like starving wolves. [The circumstances] have residents grumbling that there is no hope for the future.”

*Translated by S & J

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