This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.
A human rights organisation based in Seoul, South Korea, called the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) just released a report identifying at least 323 public execution sites in North Korea. Through interviews with 610 North Korean defectors over the last four years, TJWG has documented decades of killings in its report and claims the country aggressively uses them as a way to intimidate its citizens. And turns out, offences ranging f from stealing a cow to crossing over into China to watching a South Korean television show can get you killed in this country.
In its 71-page report titled ‘Mapping the fate of the dead’, TJWG talks about how public executions sites can be found near rivers, fields, markets, schools, and sports grounds. According to them, such capital punishment is "a core method of inciting fear and deterring citizens from engaging in activities deemed undesirable by the regime". This new report received funding from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by the US Congress. It refutes North Korea’s stance with the UN, which claims to carry out executions “only in exceptional cases, where the crime committed was exceptionally grave.”
“Public executions are to remind people of particular policy positions that the state has,” said TJWG research director, Sarah A Son. “But the second and more powerful reason is it instils a culture of fear among ordinary people.“
While public executions have been practised in places like North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia for several years, many claim that their frequency has increased under leader Kim Jong-un.
These executions happen amidst crowds of 1,000 people and often the family members of those being sentenced to death, including children, are forced to watch. Before beginning the execution, an on-the-spot “trial” is allegedly held where charges are announced and sentences issued without the accused even being given a lawyer. Purged members of the elite are also among those executed in public, including leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, in 2013.
And even after that, the bodies of those killed were not returned to the families and instead, dumped in the surrounding mountain gorges or ravines. The survey also indicates that the youngest person to have witnessed a killing was only seven.
The group found that 35 of these public executions were all at a particular river bank, where executions have been taking place every decade since the 1960s. According to them, six of the executions were by hanging and 29 by firing squad, which is how the majority of the executions are said to be conducted. This involves three shooters firing three rounds each into the body of the convicted person, but eyewitnesses point out that those carrying out the execution seemed drunk. “This is because killing is a hard thing to do emotionally," said one of the observers.
Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, one of the authors of the report pointed out to AFP that "it looks like the number of public executions is on a downward trend", but that Pyongyang may simply be operating with more secrecy "as it seeks recognition as a normal state". In fact, that is essentially one of the biggest issues with verifying whether this report is completely credible, since no one actually has access and the locations remain unidentified. It’s based on testimonies that don’t always turn out to be true, with some people who were claimed to have been executed, reappearing, and a disproportionate number of the respondents being from the northern provinces closest to the Chinese border, where people try to flee frequently.
And while North Korean state media has not been quick to comment on the report, they are infamous for denouncing criticism of their human rights record, even saying it is a part of a US-led campaign to hurt the regime’s image and give rise to political instability. Instead, recent reports claim that North Korea has now even executed some of the people involved in the nuclear talks with the US that fell through in February.
“Third-party verification is very hard to get,” says Son, “The closest we get is when our research aligns with that of other organisations. There is also a delay in the information getting to us because of the time it takes for defectors to leave and arrive in South Korea, and then we have to find them. But it is getting easier as patterns begin to emerge that go on to indicate more specific trends. It’s important that we continue to expose the diversity of human rights abuses in North Korea.”
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