North Korea executes warehouse manager for stealing penicillin

But some who were forced to watch doubted one person could commit such a crime.
By Kim Jieun for RFA Korean
2023.10.03
North Korea executes warehouse manager for stealing penicillin Boys play soccer in the town of Hyesan in North Korea's Ryanggang province, in a file photo. A manager at a pharmaceutical warehouse in the city was executed in September 2023 for allegedly stealing penicillin from the facility.
David Guttenfelder/AP file photo

A manager at a North Korean pharmaceutical warehouse was publicly executed last month for stealing 20,000 doses of penicillin, sources inside the country said.

The man, who was in his 40s, was shot to death on Sept. 25 in Hyesan, a northern city in Ryanggang province on the Chinese border, said a resident of the province who declined to be identified for safety reasons. 

It was the same spot where 25,000 people were forced to watch the execution of nine people on Aug. 30 for running a beef smuggling ring. 

But this time, the number of people who witnessed the execution was much smaller, the source told Radio Free Asia.

“Only housewives and relevant officials gathered at the execution site,” the source told RFA Korean. “Factory and farm work did not stop, and the marketplace was not closed.”

North Korean authorities carry out both secret and public executions by firing squad, hanging or other brutal methods as a means of deterrence to keep its estimated 26 million people in line and loyal to the authoritarian socialist state.

The Sept. 25 execution took place as officials were on edge about the rising number of people with coronavirus-like symptoms and respiratory illnesses, a second source from Ryanggang province said.

“In the public execution, it seemed as if the rapid increase in colds and respiratory symptoms was caused by a shortage of penicillin,” he said.

‘No more than a fly’

And while those who witnessed the execution believe there is a medicine shortage, many believe that shooting someone to death was too excessive a punishment, said the second source. 

“In August, people were shot to death for distributing beef, and this month, a manager is shot to death for stealing penicillin,” he said. 

“In this country, human life is worth no more than that of a fly.”

Residents also raised doubts that one person could commit such a crime on his own, the first source said.

“Security is not so lax so that only one person could steal them,” he said. “It is difficult for one manager to steal more than 20,000 doses of penicillin as stated by the court.”

The manager who died oversaw medicines at the No. 4 Warehouse where supplies belonging to the Civil Defense Department under the Provincial People’s Committee are stored for use during wartime, the first source said.

The man had “secretly sold a large amount of wartime reserve medicine” but it wasn’t clear who he had sold it to, the source said.

The No. 4 Warehouse sends medicines that have almost expired to local hospitals and receives new orders to replace them, he added.

“In this process, the entire shortage of penicillin was blamed on one person, and he was shot,” the source said.

A day after the execution, the government-controlled Korean Central News Agency issued a report on the further strengthening of quarantine measures in response to seasonal changes in the North Korean capital Pyongyang. 

City officials are closely monitoring the quarantine situation, quickly establishing preventive measures related to respiratory diseases, including colds, and ensuring that the rapid mobile quarantine team and rapid diagnosis and treatment team are always on high alert, the article said.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee for RFA Korean. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

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