This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korean authorities earlier this month executed a husband and wife for attempting to flee the country during the COVID-19 national emergency quarantine, sources in the country told RFA.
The couple, from Ryanggang province near China, were caught trying to escape with their teenaged nephew across the border, which has been shut down since January. They were given no trial and were immediately executed by firing squad, though the boy was able to escape execution because he is a minor.
“Earlier this month I heard from an acquaintance in the provincial security department that a family who tried to escape the country was shot to death,” a resident of Ryanggang, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA’s Korean Service last week.
“They were arrested for attempting to escape [across] the border, which is now heavily controlled due to the national emergency quarantine against the coronavirus,” the source said.
According to the source, the couple that were caught were planning to reunite with a family member once they arrived in the South.
“It was a couple in their 50s and a 14-year-old student. The boy is the son of the wife’s younger brother, who had previously escaped to the South. They were caught by border guards as they were trying to escape together,” the source said.
“The couple were tortured by the provincial security department into confessing that they tried to escape with their nephew after being contacted by her brother in South Korea,” said the source.
“The boy’s father, who escaped to South Korea, had asked his sister to bring his son to him,” the source said.
The three would-be escapees would have had better chances of making it out alive if not for COVID-19, according to the source.
“The attempt to escape at a time like this when border security is so tight due to emergency quarantine measures was an extremely dangerous and risky act,” the source said.
“The supreme leadership has ordered that those who attempt to flee the country during the emergency period must be sternly punished. There’s no way they could have avoided the firing squad because they attempted to defect to South Korea,” the source added.
But the source expressed relief that the authorities spared the teenager.
“Fortunately the child arrested with the couple was able to avoid execution because he is a minor,” said the source.
“However, the couple was executed by firing squad, not open to the public, after being charged with treason for trying to cross the border and go to South Korea.”
Another resident of Ryanggang who requested anonymity for legal reasons told RFA that the story of the attempted escape has been spreading among the people.
“[They say] that the people who were arrested while trying to escape Hyesan were shot to death. The fact that they were immediately executed for just trying to escape is shocking to most people,” the second source said.
The second source confirmed the facts about the story, including the exact family relationships of everyone involved.
“The couple had been taking care of their nephew who was left behind. They were suffering from difficulties in their business due to the coronavirus. They then tried to defect to South Korea at the request of [the wife’s] younger brother, but they ended up getting arrested,” the second source said.
According to the second source, the harsh manner in which they were immediately executed is angering the public.
“They were only trying to escape with their young nephew to find a way to live. They were shot dead before they were even able to take a single step into the Yalu river,” said the second source, referring to a river that forms part of the China-North Korea border.
“As people hear this shocking news, they are expressing their anger at the authorities, saying there’s nothing wrong with trying to escape from North Korea, especially when it is so hard to make ends meet due to the coronavirus crisis.”
Though North Korea officially claims it has no confirmed COVID-19 cases within its borders, it has admitted internally through a series of lectures to citizens that the virus is spreading in three parts of the country, including the capital Pyongyang.
The Korea Institute for National Unification revealed in its ‘White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea in 2020’ that, released on May 11, that even after Kim Jong Un took office as the chairman of the State Council, public executions have continued.
In the white paper, there were testimonies of witnesses saying that in 2018 two people were executed for possessing a Bible in Pyeongseong, South Pyongan province. In 2015, there was also testimony that two women were executed for the spread of Christianity in Gilseongpo Port, North Hwanghaeprovince, and one woman was executed after receiving a public trial for distributing dissent.
Public executions are relatively common in North Korea.
At a U.N. Security Council session on North Korea’s human rights situation in December 2017, then U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley was quoted by Reuters and other news agencies as saying that “defectors have reported that all North Koreans, ages 12 and older, are required to attend public executions—a graphic reminder of consequences of disobedience of the government.”