This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A crowd of 25,000 people were forced to gather at the airport in Hyesan, North Korea, and made to watch the day’s spectacle: nine people executed by firing squad.
Their crime? Beef smuggling. The nine people operated an illegal beef distribution ring that bought and sold about 2,100 government-owned cows, slaughtered them, and distributed the meat to markets and businesses, including a restaurant in the capital Pyongyang, residents told Radio Free Asia.
“There were enough people witnessing the shooting scene to fill the whole mountain range,” a resident of Hyesan’s surrounding Ryanggang province told RFA Korean Aug. 30 on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Prior to the execution, army representatives conducted an hour-long special military tribunal and disclosed details about each person’s crime, he said.
“After [that], the seven men and two women who were tied to wooden stakes were executed by military marksmen,” he said. “They were shot to death for killing and selling more than 2,100 state-owned cows from 2017 to February this year.”
The ring included the head of the Ryanggang province veterinary quarantine station, a salesperson at the provincial commercial management office, a farm official, a restaurant manager in Pyongyang, and a young college student who, while serving in the military, had manned a security checkpoint on the road into Pyongyang.
The crowd was surrounded by police, soldiers, and other security personnel and made to stay for the duration of the event, the resident said.
The execution caused another resident to have nightmares, she told RFA the next day.
“I kept thinking of the horrific scene of yesterday’s shooting, so I couldn’t sleep all night and trembled with fear,” she said.
Public executions are believed to have seen a resurgence in North Korea under the rule of Kim Jong Un, after a brief respite in the 2000s when the country was trying to soften its international image in the final years of his father Kim Jong Il’s rule.
Though there are no official statistics on public executions from the North Korean government, a 2021 report by the Seoul-based Transnational Justice Working Group interviewed more than 600 North Koreans who escaped to the South and determined that at least 27 public executions occurred between 2011, the year the younger Kim took power, and 2018.
Whenever there is a public execution, the government usually requires every able-bodied person in the surrounding area to attend.
Last Wednesday was no different, as factories, farms, and marketplaces in Hyesan were closed down, and “everyone between the ages of 17 and 60 who can walk,” were ordered to participate, the resident said.
Ruling by fear
During the tribunal before the execution, officials told the crowd that the ring was discovered in February when the soldiers who manned the security checkpoint into Pyongyang were discharged and new soldiers replaced them, the second resident said.
The smugglers had attempted to enter Pyongyang as usual and were caught by the new soldiers.
“In the judgment [against the ring], it was written that ‘cows are necessary for plowing fields and farming, but the culprits, by slaughtering them, hindered the country’s grain production and disrupted society,’” she said.
In a country plagued by chronic food shortages, authorities consider this to be a very serious crime, the second resident said.
“Prior to the public execution, the Special Military Tribunal of the Korean People’s Army said, ‘these criminals are treacherous, so there is no place to bury them in our country, whether in the sky or in the ground, and even extermination of three generations is not enough.’”