This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Police in North Korea earlier this month issued a decree that warns of stronger punishments for smugglers—including the death penalty– amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic in China and several of its immediate neighbors, RFA has learned.
Sources in the country say that residents think that the decree is absurd because smuggling is important to the livelihoods of many living in areas near the Sino-Korean border.
“Authorities have been working hard to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, so they issued a decree in the name of the police that threatens to harshly punish those who violate the national quarantine effort,” a resident of Ryanggang province told RFA’s Korean Service Monday.
“[The decree] says violators will be punished for ‘national treason’ and could even be executed by firing squad,” the source said.
Authorities spread the word of the new decree in community meetings in every region of the country from the beginning of February.
“At the meeting, they said the new coronavirus is spreading wildly in foreign countries and is a very dangerous epidemic. This is why they banned illegal cross-border traffic and smuggling activities until the end of this situation,” said the source.
While technically all illegal cross-border traffic is banned, North Koreans involved in smuggling activities can get around regulations through bribery or using professional and personal connections. Those caught are often given the opportunity to bribe their way out of trouble, but classifying smuggling as national treason is a new development that has arisen due to fears of the virus spreading in North Korea.
“It was pointed out [at the meeting] that those who violate this decree by continuing to cross the border for smuggling are the main culprits behind the spread of the new coronavirus,” the source said.
To date North Korea has not publicly announced a single confirmed coronavirus case, but several media outlets, citing a report from South Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo have reported that Pyongyang executed a trade official who broke quarantine by utilizing a public bath.
According to the New York Post, many South Korean media outlets reported multiple coronavirus cases in North Korea, including some that resulted in deaths, but officials of the World Health Organization in North Korea told RFA that they were not notified of any confirmed cases.
Still, the unverified Dong-a Ilbo report, if true, would align with the new decree against smuggling.
“When the defined smuggling as a ‘crime against the state,’ and mentioned possible execution, residents of the border area who make their living by smuggling became anxious,” said the source.
Another source, a resident of North Hamgyong province, told RFA on the same day that the decree is a strict ban on movement of people and goods across the border with China until the global epidemic wanes.
“They said those who violate the decree could be ‘executed by shooting’ for ‘national treason,’ so the people are scared,” the second source said.
“They are already worried that the virus might spread to North Korea, but because the decree talks about execution, they fear that it might already be here,” said the second source.
The second source added that the draconian decree is unprecedented. Even in cases where deadly diseases did infiltrate North Korean territory, no decree this harsh had ever been issued.
“In the past, when cholera, measles and SARS killed many [in North Korea], authorities never issued a decree [like this]. Some residents here are complaining that the new coronavirus is impeding the livelihood of residents who make money by smuggling.”
According to a report by the World Health Organization published at the end of Dec. 2003, after SARS had been declared “contained,” North Korea did not report a single confirmed case of that disease.