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North Korea stages public executions to strengthen ‘social order’

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presides over a military parade on April 15, 2017. (Yonhap News/Newscom/Zuma Press/TNS)
April 14, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korean authorities staged a public trial and shot two female fortune tellers to death last month, forcing tens of thousands of people to watch, in what appeared to be a resumption of public executions.

The executions of the two women took place in March in North Hamgyong’s Chongjin city, and were aimed at forcing officials to stop patronizing fortune tellers and engaging in other “superstitious” behavior, according to two sources who spoke to RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity.

“Public trials and executions have resumed this year, with judicial authorities holding these trials in multiple locations for reasons of maintaining social order,” a source in North Hamgyong province, bordering China, told RFA’s Korean Service.

The public executions “shocked” city residents, RFA’s source said.

“They pronounced sentences of death and carried out public executions immediately,” the source said, adding that two of the three women put on trial were executed by shooting, with the third sentenced to life in prison.

“Tens of thousands of people from factories, colleges, and housing units from Chongjin were forced to attend the public trail in March,” added the source.

The three had created a group called Chilsungjo (Seven Star Group) to carry out what authorities described as “superstitious activities,” the source said.

“They had used a three-year-old and five-year-old child to carry out their activities, claiming that the children were possessed by a spirit oracle and receiving money for telling fortunes,” he said.

It is now common in North Korea for people to consult fortune tellers before planning weddings or making business deals, or considering other important decisions in their lives, the source said, adding, “Even high-ranking government officials and the families of judicial authorities often visit fortune tellers.”

Making an example

Also speaking to RFA, a second source in North Hamgyong said that government concerns over the involvement of high-ranking officials in “superstitious” activities has caused authorities to make an example of those caught telling fortunes.

“The Central Committee has emphasized the elimination of anti-socialist behavior and the preservation of social order, but it is hard to find residents who will follow these orders,” the source said.

“People fear that they will starve to death if they live by the law, so it is no exaggeration to say that illegal activities have now become common.”

In February, authorities held an unusual open trial in Chongjin’s Pohang district for middle school students aged from 15 to 16 who had organized themselves into groups of two to three to carry out robberies at night, the source said.

“They acted violently against residents and stole anything that they thought would earn them money. The atmosphere became uneasy in the area at night, and it was hard for a time to find people walking around after dark.”

Because the accused were minors, they were spared harsh sentences, the source said.

“But the adults tried in public are being sentenced to death, or at least receive life sentences, so the residents are living in fear,” he said.

Numbers unclear

Accurate statistics on North Korea’s use of the death penalty are hard to find.

In February, RFA’s Korean Service reported that a Seoul-based North Korean defector-led NGO had detailed that the Kim Jong Un regime had purged 421 officials since 2010 to consolidate power around Kim.

The report, “Executions and Purges of North Korean Elites: An Investigation into Genocide Based on High-Ranking Officials’ Testimonies,” by the North Korean Strategy Center, collected accounts by 14 North Korean elite group defectors, six North Korean officials in China, and five other defectors who witnessed executions.

The report notes the well-known case of Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, a top official who was executed in 2013, and says that “more than 15 people were killed and 400 others were purged.

At a U.N. Security Council session on North Korea’s human rights situation in December 2017, then U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley was quoted by Reuters and other news agencies as saying that “defectors have reported that all North Koreans, ages 12 and older, are required to attend public executions—a graphic reminder of consequences of disobedience of the government.” she said.

In a landmark report in 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea found that “as a matter of state policy, the authorities carry out executions, with or without trial, publicly or secretly, in response to political and other crimes that are often not among the most serious crimes.”

“The policy of regularly carrying out public executions serves to instill fear in the general population,” said the report, based on extensive interviews with defectors from the North.

The UN report said that while public executions “were most common in the 1990s,” they continued up until the time of the landmark report’s release in 2014, and that 2013 saw a “spike in the number of politically motivated public executions.”

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korea Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Richard Finney.