Publicly executed for killing a woman while trying to steal beans

Residents sympathized with the 23-year-old man because they could relate to the hunger he experienced.
By Kim Jieun for RFA Korean
2023.12.23
Publicly executed for killing a woman while trying to steal beans North Koreans walk in front of a mural of late Korean leader Kim Il Sung at the border to China near the North Korean city of Hyesan in this file photo.
REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

Hundreds of residents were forced to gather at an airfield in frigid weather to watch authorities execute a 23-year-old man by firing squad, residents in North Korea told Radio Free Asia.

His alleged crime was murdering a woman while trying to steal about US$6 worth of beans from her, authorities told them.

Another 12 people were given lengthy prison sentences in excess of 10 years for various crimes including robbery, fraud, deception, escaping North Korea and drug trafficking, the residents said.

Public executions are a regular occurrence in North Korea. The Hyesan airfield was the same location where authorities executed nine people in August for running a beef smuggling ring and another in September for stealing penicillin.  

“On the morning of the 19th, the day of the public execution, an order was issued from the provincial social security bureau to residents of each neighborhood to gather at the Hyesan airfield by 2 in the afternoon,” a resident of the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

“We had to stand for two hours in minus 15-degree [Celsius] [5 degrees Fahrenheit] weather, braving the howling wind in an empty field covered in white snow,” she said. 

Authorities made the criminals stand in front of the crowd, announced their charges, then read the verdict. It wasn’t clear if they had been tried in a court.

Sympathy for the condemned man

Afterwards, those sentenced to prison were taken away, and the person who was sentenced to death was executed right on the spot by a firing squad, she said.

“Authorities said that the young man who was shot to death committed murder while trying to steal from a woman who was carrying 10 kilograms (22 lbs) of beans one night … at the end of last month.” 

The price of 10 kilograms of beans is about 50,000 won ($5.90) according to the latest market prices available. It is enough to feed a family of four for eight to 15 days. 

The man was not caught immediately after killing the woman, but he was arrested in connection with another crime and it was determined during the investigation that he had killed the woman carrying beans, the resident said.

“At the scene [of the public execution], residents criticized our society, in which people kill each other for food,” she said. “There was also criticism among residents that although murder should be punished, the authorities were largely responsible as most crimes are occurring due to lack of food,” the source said.

North Korea suffers from chronic food shortages, which the resident said provides the main motive for most violent crimes these days. 

The crippling hunger that caused the man to steal the beans was something the onlookers could relate to, another resident, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA.

“The residents understand that because he could not bear hunger at a young age, he committed accidental murder while trying to steal a backpack containing 10 kilograms (22 lbs) of beans that a woman was carrying,” she said. 

“Most of the crimes that occur recently are for survival, and if people had enough to live, they would not have occurred in the first place.” 

She said that the authorities had failed to provide conditions that would allow residents to make a decent living.

“They are only responding with draconian measures, such as this execution by firing squad,” she said.

Translated by Leejin J. Chung. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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