The three masked bandits descended upon the armored vehicle, overpowered the two soldiers on guard duty, seized 200 kilograms of gold bars worth U.S.$12 million and rode off into the North Korean countryside, sources inside the country said.
Authorities declared a state of emergency in Sinuiju, Hyesan, and other border cities as they searched desperately for the robbers and their loot, sources living near the cities told Radio Free Asia’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
The border cities are on high alert because there is no market for gold in North Korea. The 200-kilogram jackpot is essentially worthless unless it can be smuggled to buyers in China.
The mid-November robbery occurred when an armored vehicle carrying the gold was stopped on the side of the road along Route 1 on its way to the capital Pyongyang from Sinuiju, the sources said.
“There were two fully armed soldiers riding in the armored vehicle, but judging from how quickly the robbers were able to subdue them, it seems like they had special military training,” the source living near Sinuiju said. “The armed soldiers were helpless in that situation.”
Authorities put all former special forces soldiers in North Pyongan province on the list of suspects, and interrogated each one, asking what they were doing on the day of the robbery, but they are still looking for the robbers, the source said.
“The border city of Hyesan is in a state of emergency with investigators from the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of Social Security, and soldiers Border Patrol Headquarters all over the place,” a resident of Hyesan’s surrounding Ryanggang province told RFA.
The city is awash with flyers saying citizens must immediately report to authorities if they have any gold, or if they suspect anyone else to be a gold smuggler, according to the second source.
North Korea produces between two and four metric tons of gold per year, according to both sources. most of it is sent to Office 39, the organization charged with procuring slush funds for the country’s leader Kim Jong Un and his family. The rest goes to North Korea’s central bank.
North Korea’s main gold production facilities are the Jongju and Unjon refineries, both in North Pyongan. There are others in Ryanggang and South Hwanghae provinces.
However, many people secretly regard the bandits as heroes because they see the government as hoarding the gold instead of using it to help the people, who are struggling to make ends meet in an economy still reeling from international nuclear sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic, the second source said.
“The residents laugh at the authorities and cheer that someone risked their lives to raid the gold truck and got away with it.”
Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong. Edited by Malcolm Foster.