North Korea: Death Penalty for Selling COVID Medicine

By Colin Zwirko


Images obtained by NK News show notice posted at pharmacies warns violators' families will also be forcibly relocated.

A Pyongyang pharmacy at night | Image: KCNA (May 26, 2022)


North Korean authorities have threatened severe punishment — including the death penalty — for citizens who mishandle emergency medicine, according to images obtained by NK News of a notice posted outside a Pyongyang pharmacy in May, just days after state media announced the country’s first COVID-19 outbreak.


The decree (포고), released by the Ministry of Public Security on May 14, states family members of violators will also be punished under the principle of guilt by association.


It defines violations as involving “stealing or selling emergency medicines and raw materials on the black market” as well as producing or selling “fake or faulty medicines.”


Those who “shake public sentiment by raising prices of foodstuffs and commodities just for the pursuit of money” will also be subject to punishment, it says.


The decree, along with remarks by leader Kim Jong Un criticizing pharmacies in May, suggest North Koreans were privately buying, selling or bartering medicine away from state price and distribution controls, and that authorities initially struggled to manage the situation.


According to the notice, “any violation of this decree will be regarded as an anti-state and anti-popular act that challenges the national maximum emergency anti-epidemic system and will be severely punished regardless of position, affiliation or merit according to the law of war.”


“Those who commit especially severe violations of this decree will be subject to harsh punishment up to and including the death penalty, and family members living together with them will be subject to relocation and expulsion.”


The notice separately addresses groups of workers and officials involved in each step of the process of supplying and delivering medicine, warning each segment against “favoritism” and distributing medicine to “personal” contacts. It says “loss and waste” of supplies will also be considered a crime.


Two days before the notice was published, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told officials to “mobilize reserve medical supplies” to fight the country’s first large-scale outbreak of COVID-19.


He ordered the military to take over the job of stocking pharmacies and organizing medical deliveries in Pyongyang a few days later, after visiting pharmacies in the capital and criticizing them as ineffective as state media said over a million people had fallen ill in a short span nationwide.


Echoing the decree detailed above, state media at the time said Kim condemned the director of the Central Public Prosecutors Office for “failing to stem various negative phenomena” in the implementation of new drug distribution policies.


Soon after the army was mobilized, state media began a propaganda campaign showing soldiers delivering painkillers and treating suspected COVID-19 patients in their homes. The coverage suggested authorities were supplying the medicine to patients for free, but state media has not declared all such provisions are free of charge.


NK News also obtained images of lists of medicine and their prices — nearly 700 different types — displayed outside Pyongyang pharmacies in the weeks after the initial outbreak, indicating customers are expected to pay out of pocket.


The list appears to be of all government-approved medicines nationwide and their prices, with individual pharmacies marking which items are in stock and available without a doctor’s prescription. This may have been part of efforts to rein in sales of medicine “at high prices,” an act explicitly outlawed in the decree.


Reports previously emerged in summer 2019 of a similar notice warning the death penalty would be used to deter the production and sale of fake medicine and alcohol.


NK News also released a full translation of North Korea’s shoot-to-kill orders at the border introduced in early

2020 after Pyongyang closed the country to prevent the spread of COVID-19.



Seung-Yeon Chung contributed to this report. Edited by Arius Derr.



© 2022, Korea Risk Group (NK Consulting Inc.). All Rights Reserved

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