North Korea Is Trying to Build a Border Wall With China, But Can’t Get It Finished

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North Korean soldiers patrol next to the border fence near the town of Sinuiju across from the Chinese border town of Dandong on February 10, 2016. (Image: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite being generally aligned with Communist China, totalitarian North Korea has long tried to keep its citizens from venturing across the countries’ shared border for work and opportunities to defect to South Korea. 

To retain more people, the ruling Korean Workers Party aims to complete a “bulletproof” concrete wall and high-voltage electric fencing along the boundary by Oct. 10 — in time for the Party’s founding day celebrations — but a lack of supplies and food is delaying the effort. 

According to a source cited by DailyNK, military officers have sold much of the supplies intended for the wall so as to feed the soldiers who are supposed to be working on it. 

“So many supplies need to be sent to different sectors of the people’s economy,” the source told DailyNK, which reported the story on Aug. 18. “This means that the authorities aren’t properly supplying the construction work along the border.”

The source believes that the military has only been provided with 40 percent of what was needed for the construction, and what they have received is being sold in order to buy food for the mobilized soldiers. 

According to DailyNK’s source, personnel from the Korean People’s Army construction, engineering, and road bureaus have been deployed to the effort. The number of troops deployed would be enough to complete the work were there enough materials; instead, progress has been extremely slow.

Work teams are refashioning the materials left over to complete as much of the project as possible.  

Starving soldiers rob civilians, get beaten to death in retaliation 

Due to its strict isolation and repression, North Korea is a chronic victim of famine and malnutrition. Even soldiers cannot have their rations guaranteed, especially with severe floods, African swine flu, and the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the country in recent months and years. 

Soldiers becoming bandits and robbing civilian communities for their food has become a frequent phenomenon in parts of the country outside of the capital, Pyongyang. According to the source who spoke with DailyNK, soldiers sometimes kill locals when caught in the act; others are captured instead and set upon by angry villagers, then “beaten to a pulp.” 

Both central and local governments, as well as the higher leadership of the military, have failed to care for malnourished soldiers, whose bellies are swollen and their limbs stick-like. 

Under these circumstances, North Korean logistics units have often taken matters into their own hands to keep soldiers from starving or breaking the law. 

“Logistics officials who are tasked with feeding the troops have nothing, and they’re getting no help from either the localities or from Pyongyang. So they’re [selling] rebar, cement and sand and buying freshly harvested potatoes or corn to feed the soldiers,” said the source. “Nobody is coming to check, so they are secretly pilfering the supplies and using them to feed the troops.”

The construction materials are typically bought up by the donju, the word for North Korea’s black market entrepreneurs (officially, almost the entire economy is run by the state). 

According to DailyNK, the military men are “ignorant of the market value of what they are selling,” allowing the donju to profit greatly. 

  • Leo Timm is a writer and Chinese-to-English translator with years of experience covering Chinese politics, society, and culture. Follow him on Twitter at @soil_and_grain.