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North Korea publicly executes smuggler for violating COVID-19 quarantine rule

North Korean soldiers watch from tower on the North Korean side Military Demarkation Line. (SRA JEFFREY ALLEN/WikiCommons)
December 04, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Authorities in North Korea have publicly executed a citizen for violating “emergency quarantine measures,” in an effort to scare other citizens into strict compliance, sources in the country told RFA.

North Korea publicly claims it is virus free, but it has employed strict measures to prevent the spread of the virus through the country, including locking down entire cities and counties, cancelling major cultural events, and forbidding travel between provinces.

In April, Pyongyang extended to the end of the year an “emergency quarantine posture” in effect since the beginning of the pandemic. Since then, it has used several incidents where people illegally crossed borders and returned to the county to introduce even stricter measures.

“Since the end of November, the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] have ratcheted up the existing emergency quarantine measures to ‘ultra-high-level emergency quarantine measures,” a resident of North Pyongan province, on the border with China in the country’s northwest told RFA’s Korean Service Tuesday.

“They held a public execution by firing squad to threaten residents here in the border area, because there’s been a lot of contact with people on the other side of the border, including a lot of smuggling,” the source said.

An already dire economic situation was made worse in January when Beijing and Pyongyang closed the Sino-Korean border and suspended all trade over COVID-19 concerns. But smugglers who make their living by covertly ferrying Chinese goods into North Korea continued to cross the 880-mile-long border.

Fearful that frequent border crossers could bring the virus back with them from China, North Korea has imposed a series of ever harsher measures in late 2020.

Authorities beefed up the frontier guard corps with special forces and ordered soldiers to shoot anyone within a kilometer (0.6 miles) of the border regardless of their reason for being there, before deploying landmines to increase deterrence.

In November, Pyongyang deployed anti-aircraft units in some areas of the border not only to prevent civilians from crossing, but to stop corruption from soldiers stationed there who assist smugglers in exchange for bribes or engage in the activity themselves.

In North Pyongan province, home of the major cross-border trading hub city of Sinuiju, which lies just across the border from China’s Dandong, authorities want to drive the point home through the recent public execution, according to the source.

“The public execution happened because the victim was charged with violating quarantine right before the ultra-high-level emergency measures took effect around November 20th. A man in his 50s who tried to smuggle with Chinese business partners was shot as an example on November 28th,” the source said.

“At the end of last month, the Central Committee circulated an internal instruction to agencies and state-run companies across the country to ‘raise the alarm about the coronavirus.’ This is when the provincial security department, the police, factories, companies and neighborhood watch units organized a surveillance team to crack down on people who were breaking quarantine rules,” said the source.

The source was not a witness to the public execution but had discussed it with someone who was in attendance. According to that person, authorities changed the site of the execution to avoid international scrutiny.

“They were supposed to shoot the guy in Sinuiju, but they decided to do it in Ryongchon county, because he’s from that area. If they did it in Sinuiju, news would quickly spread across the border to China,” said the source. Sinuiju is visible across the Yalu River from the Chinese city of Dandong.

“This reign of terror for the people has reached its peak since the Central Committee issued the ultra-high-level emergency quarantine order. We’ve also heard that they publicly shot a currency exchange broker in Pyongyang who violated quarantine rules.”

Another source, a North Pyongan official, told RFA Wednesday that citizens are more afraid than ever due to the ever-increasing measures to control their movement.

“While guarding the border seamlessly from the ground, in the air, and at sea, authorities ordered soldiers to shoot anyone approaching the border unconditionally, regardless of who the person is or their reason for being in the area. It is an absolute threat to the border area residents,” said the second source.

“The Central Committee’s order to sound the alarm means we are to warn the people that those who violate the rules will be executed with a firing squad. Even during the Arduous March in the 1990s, when mass defections continued, the government did not threaten the residents of the border area like this,” the second source said, referring to the 1994-1998 famine that killed millions of North Koreans, as much as 10 percent of the population by some estimates.

The second source said that the public execution was a typical case of the government making an example of the victim to scare the people.

“Whenever the people complain because their livelihoods are affected, the authorities always try to shut them up by threatening them with public executions or by sending them to political prison camps.”