Images show North Korea sealing its border with China

  • By Michael Sheils McNamee
  • BBC news

Image caption,

There has been a major increase in security along the North Korea-China border. This image shows North Korea from an area near the Chinese border city of Hunchun in 2015

North Korea has used the Covid-19 pandemic to seal its northern border with China, according to new images from a leading human rights group.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) describes a situation of “intensified repression”, with “dramatically reduced” cross-border movements and trade.

In the survey, North Koreans spoke about the increasingly restrictive measures.

UN member states must ‘immediately address’ North Korea’s isolation and humanitarian crisis, HRW insists.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has stepped up a crackdown on border security in recent years, coinciding with the pandemic.

The border was only reopened a few months ago, largely to improve trade with China.

Focusing on satellite images, it shows authorities in North Korea are building 300 miles (482 kilometers) of new fencing in the areas surveyed, and improving another 160 miles (260 kilometers) of fencing already in place.

The images were taken between 2019 and 2023 and cover about a quarter of the northern border. They also describe things like new guard posts and the creation of buffer zones – things that further restrict life in the country.

Image caption,

In this image we can see that in March 2019 on the east bank of the Tumen River, a primary fence is visible, but is interrupted by a large opening for the Hoeryong Stream. Three years later, in April 2022, a bridge was added, along with secondary fencing, creating a buffer zone

Along with border infrastructure, there has been more authoritarian enforcement of the rules, including a shoot-on-sight order for border guards.

HRW noted a 20-fold increase in the number of border security facilities in the area observed, with guard posts increasing from just 38 to more than 6,500.

Lina Yoon, senior Korea researcher at HRW, said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “must end the policies that have essentially turned North Korea into a giant prison, reopen its borders to trade, travel restrictions should be relaxed and controlled international emergency aid allowed.”

One escaped woman, who spoke to her relative at home, said rice and wheat could no longer be smuggled into the country.

“Not even an ant can cross the border now,” her relative told her. This has also made it more difficult for North Korean refugees to send money home to support their families, the report said, further exacerbating the suffering of the North Korean people.

Another person who had left the country described the situation to his relatives in late 2022, when many parts of the world were experiencing strict Covid-19 restrictions.

“Mine [relative] They said people are now more worried about dying of hunger than dying of Covid-19,” they said.

“They are all afraid of dying from simple diseases.”

The crackdown has also halted the flow of money from people in South Korea to their relatives and contacts in the North.

HRW estimated that only around one in ten money brokers could transfer money at the beginning of 2023, compared to the situation before the pandemic.

The report also highlights the toll the UN sanctions, imposed on Pyongyang in 2017 after nuclear tests, have taken on people.

The report calls them “broad-based” and says they have “taken a toll on the population as a whole by undermining people’s rights to an adequate standard of living, and therefore to food and health.”

“This had a particularly severe impact on women, the main breadwinners in most households, by reducing activity in the markets in which they traded.”

A former trader who had been in contact with relatives in North Korea said a relative caught squid and crabs and made a living from informal trade with China.

Due to Covid-19 and the sanctions, this trade was halted – and his relatives had to sell for domestic consumption at a much lower return, making it “difficult to survive”.

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Video Caption,

Myung-hui and her daughter Songmi

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