North Korea used Covid-19 lockdown to fortify northern border

Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, has shored up his northern flank during lockdown, according to reports - KRT
Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, has shored up his northern flank during lockdown, according to reports - KRT

North Korea has exploited the Covid-19 pandemic to create excessive new border controls, building miles of fortress-like border fences and garrisons along its border with China to prevent defections or smuggling.

An analysis by Human Rights Watch of new satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies concludes that the measures have all but barred entry and exit into the “hermit kingdom”, blocking asylum seekers fleeing abuse but also devastating the local economy.

Since the reclusive state locked down in early 2020, the regime has constructed new primary fences in several areas, set up secondary layers of fencing, improved or widened patrol paths, and constructed a number of new watchtowers and posts, according to new satellite images.

The border restrictions were initially intended to keep the virus out of the impoverished country where the health system is already at risk of collapse, but the authorities have since declared victory over Covid-19 after it swept the nation earlier this year.

“The North Korean government used purported Covid-19 measures to further repress and endanger the North Korean people,” said Lina Yoon, senior Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“The government should redirect its energies to improving access to food, vaccines, and medicine, and respecting freedom of movement and other rights.”

The HRW report analyses imagery covering over 180 miles along the border with China, comparing security infrastructure before and after the pandemic.

In just one area – the 4.6 miles around Hoeryong city on the Tumen River – the investigation shows that five watch towers have been increased to 169 guard posts since 2019.

Secondary fencing

The border zone was already almost fully fenced three years ago, but now has an additional 5.7 miles of secondary fencing and 5.9 miles of improved primary fencing.

Hoeryong has long been known for its unofficial cross-border smuggling and trade that has been vital for local livelihoods and an important route for escapees.

Three organisations that previously helped North Koreans flee the country told HRW that new border controls have made their work impossible since 2020.

Anecdotally, smugglers have also said they are no longer able to function. Five escapees told researchers that out of 10 money brokers they knew who had been sending money into the country previously, only one was still able to do so.