Kim Jong-un's regime in North Korea is infamous for its brutality, with "purges" of top officials regularly reported, and tens of thousands of citizens known to be imprisoned in concentration camps. But the extreme secrecy that persists in the Hermit Kingdom rarely allows for a detailed accounting of exactly how often the draconian government kills its own people.
But according to a new report from the Korean Institute for National Unification, a think tank funded by the South Korean government, the North Korean regime has publicly executed 1,382 people since 2000.
"These kinds of executions are warning signals to the people," Jean H. Lee, a policy fellow and expert on North Korea at the Wilson Center, told VICE News. "If they violate their country's laws, there will be consequences."
It's impossible to confirm the accuracy of execution statistic included in the new report. There's no official information from the North Korean government about executions, and human rights groups are banned from working the country. The media is also tightly controlled by the ruling regime. The estimate is drawn from secondhand accounts and extrapolations from interviews with 221 North Korean defectors.
"We know people are publicly executed: the question how extensive is that used, and how common is it for people in the general population to be threatened with it," Lee said.
Lee could not verify the numbers used in the report, and she emphasized that any statistics coming out of North Korea should be read with caution. "Unfortunately, there are no primary sources when it comes to North Korea," she said.
'These kind of executions are warning signals to the people.'
Still, other independent reporting on executions in North Korea seemingly jibes with the latest findings. According to reports in the South Korean press, the year after Kim took power following the death of his father Kim Jong-il in 2011, the state carried out 80 public executions, some for minor infractions such as smuggling in recordings of South Korean soap operas.
In 2013, the South Korean newspaper Joongang Daily claimed that North Korean citizens were forced to attend public spectacles where dozens were executed in stadiums by firing squads. Amnesty International also documented 70 executions in 2013, and noted in its report that the actual number of executions could be much higher.
Lee is skeptical that North Korea would execute citizens for merely watching a banned soap opera. But she emphasized that "Koreans do live under a strict web of rules — and violating those rules carries serious consequences."
Lee also said that Kim has ramped up political oppression since succeeding his father.
"Historically, each time there's been a new leader, there have been purges," Lee said. "It's not surprising given the transition to this third generation, that there would be close scrutiny of loyalty to the leader, and a witch hunt for people."
The North Korean government and media rarely confirms its executions. According to Death Penalty Watch, state media only mentioned two separate executions in 2014. Still, Lee says that the climate is increasingly oppressive. "In the past there may have been more wiggle room for violations; now they are tightening that up," she said.
If North Korea did execute 1,382 people, the country still puts to death far fewer people than Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia — the world's leading executioners. The US put to death 761 people between 2000 and 2013, about half of the suspected North Korean execution rate.
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Watch the VICE News documentary, Launching Balloons into North Korea: Propaganda Over Pyongyang