March 25 (UPI) -- South Korea police have arrested and charged an employee of a face mask manufacturer and charged three others with illegally exporting antiviral gear to China.
The employee, identified as Defendant A, had taken 89,000 masks out of inventory, South Korean news service News 1 reported Wednesday.
Police in the city of Busan said the defendant is being charged with theft and violation of Korea's pharmaceutical affairs law.
Face masks have become a highly sought item in South Korea in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Experts in the country have said the masks prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Defendant A did not act alone. Three brokers and distributors, identified as Defendants B, C and D, are accused of violating the pharmaceutical affairs law. Defendant D was the ultimate distributor of the masks to China, and to domestic South Korean clients.
Defendant A stole the masks from the company in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang Province about 11 p.m. on March 8, police said. The inventory was worth about $57,000. Defendant A sold the masks at about 33 to 90 cents per mask to Defendant B.
Defendant D, the final receiver of the stolen masks, sold 50,000 masks to China, and sold the remaining 39,000 domestically, at $1.95 per mask.
Masks are scarce in supply in Korea, where the government has limited purchases to two masks per week. The masks are usually sold at pharmacies and drugstores where South Koreans typically wait in long lines to make their purchases.
Masks could continue to remain in high demand in China. The country began importing face masks using state employees posted overseas in February.
Last month Bloomberg reported China's state-controlled oil explorer PetroChina Co. directed its employees in 20 countries to purchase face masks and send them home.
Chinese employees were purchasing large quantities of masks at Home Depot and Lowe's stores before the pandemic took over the United States, according to the report.