A smuggler in his 50s was recently executed in North Pyongan Province, sources told Daily NK earlier this month. The man was accused of hiding a possible COVID-19 infection picked up while in China. Oddly, he was executed under North Korea’s law against treason, an excessive punishment that has sowed confusion among local people familiar with the case.

The smuggler, a resident of Cholsan County, which is 30 kilometers south of the border city of Sinuiju, crossed into China in January. When his condition took a turn for the worse, and he found that he was ineligible for Chinese medical treatment, the man secretly returned to North Korea.

The man entered North Korea without incident, but hid his condition from the authorities because he felt that the atmosphere at the time was not conducive to admitting his situation. Ultimately, his condition was found out.

North Korea closed its international border with China and banned all foreigners from entering the country in late January to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. At the same time, measures were introduced stating that Koreans returning from abroad must pass through quarantine, while the authorities also moved to enhance controls over movements of residents between provinces and cities.

“In Cheolsan County, they established checkpoints and are controlling all population movements,” one source reported. “The authorities have warned that they will send anyone caught secretly violating these restrictions to re-education camps.”

The smuggler was arrested by the Ministry of State Security in North Pyongan Province and then executed as a traitor.

Under the North Korean penal code, execution for treason represents an extremely harsh punishment for the man’s crimes of illegal border-crossing and breaking quarantine regulations.

The article of North Korea’s penal code that covers treason states that if a North Korean citizen commits treason by defection, surrender, betrayal or disclosure of secrets then he or she is eligible for a sentence of more than five years in prison. The article also states that if the crime is particularly serious, the sentence can be up to ten years.

North Korean authorities, however, are striving to prevent the spread of the virus as a matter of priority, and therefore appear to be delivering harsh punishments to people who violate lesser regulations.

On February 26, Daily NK reported on the case of a female smuggler who was arrested and faced a very severe sentence for violating the authorities’ border blockade. North Korean smugglers in China who heard the news told Daily NK that they too suspect they will be punished if they return home.

“People who were in China for the purpose of smuggling are still there because of this border closure,” one source said. “Smugglers are fearful of execution, and so they are staying in China, even though there they are unable to obtain proper treatment.”

*Translated by Chris Green

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