This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Authorities in North Korea executed without trial three high-ranking officials last week on charges of treason, for allegedly stealing food from the country’s strategic supply and selling it on the open market amid skyrocketing prices resulting from the ongoing coronavirus epidemic, sources within the isolated country told RFA.
According to sources familiar with the situation, the food was part of a large emergency shipment from China that was allowed to come through despite trade between the two countries having been shut down to prevent the spread of the virus.
The portion that was sold on the market was high-quality food intended to be used in celebrations for national founder Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15, a holiday referred to as the Day of the Sun.
A trader in North Pyongan province told RFA’s Korean Service Sunday said that authorities temporarily reopened the Dandong-Sinuiju customs office on March 23 to accept the shipment. It had been completely shut down since January.
“Even with the coronavirus going on, they opened up [the customs office] and quickly brought those supplies in,” said the source.
“Three executives stole [some] of these imported strategic supplies on the local market and were shot dead without a trial a few days ago on charges of treason,” the source added.
The source described in detail how the theft occurred, saying, “About 10 trucks and freight cars came through [from China] with the strategic supplies, food for the big wigs to celebrate the Day of the Sun.”
“The supplies were quarantined and disinfected before they entered a logistics warehouse. As they were being separated for distribution in amounts designated by the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party], a senior official at a food factory bribed one of the logistics officials to receive five tons more soybean oil than what should have been allotted, and sold it in the local markets,” said the source.
But the soybean oil was easily detected as being of Chinese origin and linked to the strategic supply.
“An investigation was conducted after the Central Committee received a report that all the soybean oil sold in the local markets in North Pyongan were part of those supplies coming from China,” the source said.
“The investigation uncovered that the warehouse manager, the supplier that made the delivery and the person receiving the goods had conspired to steal from the strategic supply,” the source added.
According to the source, the execution may have been ordered by Kim Jong Un himself.
“The results of the investigation were included in a No. 1 report,” the source said, using a term that means the report was intended for the country’s supreme leader.
“I understand that they were shot to death in accordance with the No. 1 policy to treat the case as national treason because they stole emergency goods imported by the Central Committee,” said the source, adding that it was unknown when and where the execution took place.
Another source, also from North Pyongan told RFA Monday that the goods the officials sold on the market had been scarce for months.
“Since the end of January, when they blocked off the border because of the coronavirus, foods like imported sugar and soybean oil have become scarce in the Sinuiju market and prices have soared,” the second source said.
“The price of soybean oil jumped from 15,000 won to 18,000 [U.S. $1.87 to $2.25] per kilogram due to the lack of goods,” said the second source. The 20 percent increase seems relatively small by Western standards, but in a country where the government-issued monthly salary amounts to less than $5, and where most people need to find a side gig to supplement their incomes, the increase is huge.
“With the price of soybean oil so high, it seems that the officials were trying to take a cut out of the oil that was brought in for emergencies,” the second source said.
As a result of their crime, the price of soybean oil went down to 13,000 won ($ 1.62) per kilogram.
“But people who bought it have strangely also reported it to the Central Committee,” said the second source.
“It’s good for the people that the prices at the local markets have gone down, but if they reopen trade with China, they would be able buy soybean oil at a much cheaper price,” the second source said.
“The people are openly criticizing the authorities for blaming others while they block normal trade activities,” the second source said.
RFA reported in late February that the state warned in a decree that it would issue stricter penalties, including the death penalty, for smuggling amid the coronavirus crisis. This followed a report in South Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo that said a Pyongyang executed a trade official who broke quarantine by utilizing a public bath.
Public executions in North Korea are relatively common, depending on which particular crimes the government wants to focus on at any given moment. These have ranged from executions for infractions as mild as consuming foreign media, to those in large-scale political purges.