North Korea has issued shoot-to-kill orders at the country's border to prevent coronavirus from entering the country, the commander of US forces in the South has said.
The secretive nation continues to claim it has so far found no traces of Covid-19 infection within its borders, despite the virus emerging from neighbouring China and causing a global pandemic.
It comes as nearly every other world nation has reported cases, with the global reported total number of cases now at more than 28.5million.
Pyongyang closed its border with China in January to try to prevent the virus from entering the country and it is widely believed that the impoverished North's crumbling health system would struggle to cope with a major virus outbreak.
In July, North Korea state media reported the country had raised its state of emergency to the maximum level and now shoot-to-kill orders are said to be in place at the country's border.
US Forces Korea (USFK) Commander Robert Abrams said that the border shutdown had increased demand for smuggled goods, prompting authorities to intervene.
The North introduced a new "buffer zone, one or two kilometers up on the Chinese border," Commander Abrams told an online conference organised by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on Thursday, September 10.
Commander Abrams said: "They've got North Korean Special Operations Forces out there. … Strike forces, they've got shoot-to-kill orders in place."
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The border closure has effectively "accelerated the effects" of economic sanctions imposed on the North over its nuclear programs, he added, with imports from China plunging by 85%.
The isolated country is also grappling with the aftermath of Typhoon Maysak, with its state media reporting more than 2,000 houses have been destroyed or inundated.
As a result, Abrams did not expect to see any major provocations from Pyongyang in the near future, although he said it might show off a new weapons system at next month's celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the founding of Kim Jong Un's ruling party.
"The regime right now ― the military ― is focused principally on getting their country recovered and to help mitigate the risk of Covid-19," he said.
"We're not seeing any indications right now of any sort of lashing out."
But CSIS published on its website a satellite image of North Korea's Sinpo South naval shipyard, which its experts believe shows activity that could indicate preparations for a test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
A new North Korean missile test would be yet another sign of the lack of progress in denuclearisation talks between the US and Pyongyang, which have been stalled despite multiple meetings between Kim and US President Donald Trump.
Trump, who is seeking reelection in November, was the first sitting US leader to meet a member of the Kim dynasty, which has ruled North Korea since its founding.
On Thursday, Trump tweeted, without further explanation: "Kim Jong-un is in good health. Never underestimate him!"
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