North Korea holds public trial for zinc smugglers

Trucks transport iron ore from North Korea’s Jaeryong Mine in 2014. Image: Rodong Sinmun

Workers arrested for stealing refined zinc and zinc ore concentrates were put on public trial and sentenced to forced labor. The materials were allegedly stolen from Komdok Mining Enterprise in South Hamgyong Province’s Tanchon City, and then sold to Chinese smugglers, according to sources in the country familiar with the incident.

“The Tanchon City police station and court held a public trial for 36 criminals near the Tanchon Market from 10am on November 12,” said a South Hamgyong Province-based source. “The accused were sentenced to forced labor for between six months and two years.”

The public trial was the second to be held in Tanchon this year, and the authorities gave four days’ advanced notice to the mine’s workers and residents of Tanchon beforehand to encourage attendance. Held in an empty lot, the public trial was widely attended, the source added.

The 36 accused were placed in a straight line, and when the head prosecutor read out each charge, the attending judge announced the corresponding punishment.

“The accused were mostly smugglers who stole zinc produced in the mine and sold it to Chinese traders, along with drug addicts and others who stole crops,” said the source.

According to the charges, some of the accused received an advance payment from Chinese smugglers to routinely steal and sell the zinc. Their scheme, however, was soon uncovered by the North Korean authorities.

International sanctions have blocked many official avenues of export for North Korean goods, but the court proceedings revealed that smugglers are using their own long-standing networks to continue selling their products in China surreptitiously.

In accordance with UN Resolution No. 2321, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce banned the import of North Korean zinc from December 2016, essentially blocking every official route for import into China for the past two years. North Korea currently appears to be producing zinc for its own domestic use. Indeed, Premier Pak Pong Ju visited the Third Mill and Kumgol Mine in August this year.

Daily NK recently reported that workers in North Korea’s largest iron ore mine, the Musan Mine in North Hamgyong Province, has shut down and workers have not received rations for months.

“The trial was carried out after the mine’s Party Committee and security authorities warned miners not to siphon off minerals,” a separate source in South Hamgyong Province said.

“There is nothing wrong with selling the minerals if the state benefits; however, the authorities wanted to show everyone that stealing state assets for personal gain will not be tolerated.”

According to defectors from the area, public trials are rarely held for such cases. Most residents of the Tanchon area participated in the smuggling of mined resources from the mid-1990s to survive, and these activities continued to rise due to improving levels of organization among smugglers, who even transport mined resources by truck to the Chinese border.

“This is the second public trial this year, but I am aware of several other cases where the authorities are investigating or putting on trial those who smuggled mined resources out of the country,” said an additional source in region, who added that it would be hard for the authorities to completely eliminate crimes of necessity committed by impoverished workers.

Daily NK in reported in 2017 that public trials and executions have continued to decline in North Korea.

According to the source, the accused will be carrying out their forced labor sentences at the Huiyang-ri Correctional Labor Camp (kyohwaso, also known as a re-education camp) in Hamhung. The Oro Correctional Labor Camp Facility in Yonggwang County was handling such cases until last year, but that facility has now closed.

Kim Yoo Jin is one of Daily NK's freelance journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to