After 653 bullets went missing during a recent military withdrawal, North Korean authorities have locked down the entire city of Hyesan and searched house-to-house for the ammunition, two sources in the country told Radio Free Asia.
The assault rifle ammunition was discovered to be missing on March 7, when soldiers with the Korean People’s Army 7th Corp were pulling back from the area surrounding the city, which lies on the border with China. They had been deployed there in 2020 to enforce the border closure at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They withdrew completely between Feb. 25 and Mar. 10, but an extensive investigation is underway because of a loss of bullets during the evacuation process,” a resident of the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
When it happened, the soldiers did not initially report it but tried to find the missing bullets themselves, according to the source. “But when the missing bullets could not be found, they notified the residents and began a rigorous search,” he said.
The police and military launched an investigation, sealed off the whole city, and began searching house to house, the source said.
“Those who have seen or picked up any number of bullets are required to report them as soon as possible.”
Those who fail to report any bullets they found could be punished, the source said.
“There have been no clues even after 10 days have passed since this investigation began,” the source said. “The city … will remain on lockdown until all 653 bullets are found.
Residents had been looking forward to the army’s withdrawal from the area, but during the investigation they will have even less freedom of movement, a Ryanggang province official, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA.
“Last week, orders were issued to factories, farms, social groups and neighborhood watch units in the province to actively cooperate with the ammunition-related investigation,” the official said, adding that when the bullets were not recovered after 10 days, the investigating authorities resorted to lying to spread fear among the public.
“They tried to put pressure on the residents by bluffing that the withdrawal was a maneuver related to the safety of the Supreme Dignity from reactionary forces,” the official said, using an honorific to refer to the country’s leader Kim Jong Un.
Moving such a large force from the border region to protect Kim Jong Un could be interpreted by the people to mean that the country is under attack, and invaders were pushing towards Pyongyang.
“The Ministry of State Security, the Military Security Command of the Korean People's Army, and the Ministry of Social Security issued a particularly stern warning against ‘Plunder, Illegal Possession or Disposal of Weapons, Ammunition and Combat Technology Equipment’ as stipulated in the criminal law Article 78,” the official said.
“According to that law, a person who illegally possesses or transfers firearms, ammunition, or weapons shall be punished by reform through labor for more than three years,” he said.
The residents are afraid that if there is no resolution then the authorities will randomly punish someone who might be completely innocent, the official said.
“Some residents are saying that the authorities are raising the atmosphere of sharp military confrontation between the North and the South every day, even claiming that the South is provoking war,” said the official. “Because this incident occurred at a time of tension, residents are closely watching how the investigation will end.”
Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Edited by Eugene Whong.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Jieun Kim for RFA Korean.