New light shone on pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions in N. Korea

Lodi News-Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Vic­to­ria Kim

SEOUL, South Korea — As a boy of about 9 or 10, Kang Chun Hyok waded be­tween grown-ups’ legs and made his way to the front of a crowd of hun­dreds as­sem­bled near a brick fac­tory in his home­town, not far from North Korea’s bor­der with China.

Six sol­diers aimed their ri­fles at the con­demned man, who looked like he could barely walk. Each fired three shots, and then it was over. The man’s crime: steal­ing cop­per wires from power lines, a state prop­erty.

“I was cu­ri­ous, and wanted to pick up shell cas­ings. But I was shocked,” re­called Kang, now 33, who fled North Korea in 1998 and lives in Seoul. “The scene was so real, I was so young.”

He’s far from alone. Four in five North Korean es­capees in­ter­viewed for a new re­port by a South Korea-based re­search group said they wit­nessed a pub­lic ex­e­cu­tion in their life­time. More than half said they’d been forced to watch one.

Ever since Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s dra­matic pivot to per­sonal diplo­macy with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in early 2018, both U.S. and South Korean of­fi­cials have tip­toed around men­tion­ing the North Korean regime’s hu­man rights record for fear of up­end­ing talks. Even with the ne­go­ti­a­tions in­def­i­nitely on ice since Fe­bru­ary’s sum­mit in Hanoi, both govern­ments have con­tin­ued to shy away from the topic.

All the while, a group in South Korea has been lay­ing the ground­work for a day when the North Korean regime will have to ac­count for acts that the United Na­tions has called crimes against hu­man­ity.

As in post-apartheid South Africa and former Yu­goslavia, re­searchers are bet­ting there will come a day of reck­on­ing be­fore in­ter­na­tional law for North Korea’s lead­ers.

The new re­port by Seoul­based non-profit Tran­si­tional Jus­tice Work­ing Group, based on in­ter­views with more than 600 es­capees, at­tempts to pre­pare for the even­tual le­gal pro­ceed­ings by count­ing the skele­tons in North Korea’s closet — iden­ti­fy­ing and map­ping more than 300 pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions and dozens of burial sites wherein lie those killed by the state.

In a sign that the regime may be sen­si­tive to how the ex­e­cu­tions are viewed by the out­side world, two of the es­capees said guards used hand-held metal de­tec­tors to seize cell phones from those in the au­di­ence in 2013 or 2014, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

The con­tin­ued prac­tice of pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions is a key tool through which North Korea main­tains con­trol over its peo­ple, said re­search direc­tor Sarah Son, one of the re­port’s au­thors.

“It’s a clear tac­tic, it serves a pur­pose,” she said. “It main­tains that cul­ture of fear, it as­serts regime con­trol, it re­minds peo­ple that cer­tain crimes are not tol­er­ated.”

Along with Iran and Saudi Ara­bia, North Korea is only one of fewer than a hand­ful of na­tions world­wide that con­tinue to con­duct ex­e­cu­tions be­fore a pub­lic au­di­ence. The regime has ac­knowl­edged to the United Na­tions in the past that pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions do take place but “only in ex­cep­tional cases, where the crime com­mit­ted was ex­cep­tion­ally grave.”

The re­port found that more than vi­o­lent crime, the most com­mon type of charge North Korean es­capees re­ported peo­ple be­ing ex­e­cuted for was prop­erty crimes — steal­ing cop­per from power lines or theft of live­stock, es­pe­cially cows. Of the 715 charges doc­u­mented in the re­port, 238 cases in­volved theft or dam­age to prop­erty while 115 cases were for vi­o­lent crimes in­clud­ing mur­der and rape. Many oth­ers re­ported see­ing ex­e­cu­tions for po­lit­i­cal crimes or for watch­ing South Korean me­dia.

Un­der North Korean crim­i­nal laws, “ex­tremely se­vere cases of theft of state prop­erty” are pun­ish­able by death.

The vast ma­jor­ity were ex­e­cuted by fir­ing squad, with a small num­ber of re­ported hang­ings, which ap­pears to have been largely dis­con­tin­ued since 2005, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. The most com­mon sites of pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions were river banks, open spa­ces and fields, of­ten with hun­dreds but some­times more than a thou­sand watch­ing.

With­out ac­cess to North Korea or any of its of­fi­cial records, re­searchers had to rely on the mem­o­ries of es­capees who vol­un­teered to be in­ter­viewed. Be­cause it takes years for North Kore­ans who flee to China to make their way to South Korea, the most re­cent doc­u­mented ex­e­cu­tion dates from 2015, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to know whether there have been changes amid talks with the U.S.

A sep­a­rate re­port re­leased last week by South Korean gov­ern­ment-af­fil­i­ated Korea In­sti­tute for Na­tional Uni­fi­ca­tion found based on anec­do­tal ac­counts that pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions con­tin­ued to take place in 2018, but they may have be­come less fre­quent.

Re­searchers have also been doc­u­ment­ing sus­pected mass graves where re­mains of the con­demned may be buried, us­ing satel­lite im­ages and re­trac­ing es­capees’ mem­o­ries, to help with any fu­ture pros­e­cu­tions or tri­bunals.

In 2014, a U.N. Com­mis­sion of In­quiry on Hu­man Rights in North Korea warned Kim Jong Un in a let­ter that un­der in­ter­na­tional law, mil­i­tary com­man­ders and civil­ian su­pe­ri­ors can be held ac­count­able for abuses com­mit­ted un­der their rule.

The let­ter ac­com­pa­nied a 400-page re­port that doc­u­mented crimes against hu­man­ity tak­ing place in North Korea in­clud­ing “ex­ter­mi­na­tion, mur­der, en­slave­ment, tor­ture, im­pris­on­ment, rape, forced abor­tions and other sex­ual vi­o­lence, per­se­cu­tion on po­lit­i­cal, re­li­gious, racial and gen­der grounds, the forcible trans­fer of pop­u­la­tions, the en­forced dis­ap­pear­ance of per­sons and the in­hu­mane act of know­ingly caus­ing pro­longed star­va­tion.”

Some of the es­capees in­ter­viewed for the re­port, though, had a sim­pler rea­son for why the bod­ies of those ex­e­cuted by the state should be lo­cated and ex­humed: “the dead bod­ies should be re­turned to their fam­i­lies as the dead are hu­man be­ings.”


Ser­vice men march dur­ing a mil­i­tary pa­rade mark­ing the 70th an­niver­sary of the foun­da­tion of North Korea in Py­ongyang on Sept. 9, 2018.

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