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North Korea publicly executed at least 27 people since 2011, report says

North Korea's Kim Jong Un. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
December 18, 2021

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

North Korea has held at least 27 public executions during the 10-year reign of Kim Jong Un, a report published by a South Korean human rights organization said Wednesday.

In “Mapping Killings Under Kim Jong-un: North Korea’s Response to International Pressure,” the Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) interviewed 683 North Korean refugees who entered South Korea between 1990 and 2019. Based on their testimonies, at least 27 public executions took place from the time Kim Jong Un took office in 2011 to 2018.

TJWG said it sought to document human rights violations “to support a stronger push for accountability as part of conceptualizing transitional justice for North Korea.”

Among the executions, seven were for watching and distributing South Korean videos, five were for drug-related offenses, five for prostitution, four for human trafficking, three for murder or attempted murder, and three for obscenity.

The main method of execution is by firing squad, the report said. Three solders each fire three shots for a total of nine shots to kill the prisoners.

The most common reason for public executions has changed with each leader in the three-generation Kim Dynasty, which has ruled North Korea since 1948, TJWG’s Executive Director Lee Younghwan told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday.

“While many political executions were carried out to seize power during the Kim Il Sung regime, economic difficulties were reflected during the Kim Jong Il regime, where ‘economic executions’ were carried out,” Lee said, referring to Kim Jong Un’s grandfather and father, respectively.

“When North Korea enacted the Law on Rejection of Reactionary Thought and Culture last year, it legalized execution on charges of watching South Korean videos, and these executions have started up. Executions for watching videos is unacceptable from an international point of view,” he said.

The North Korean government uses public executions to send a warning to the masses, while private executions are left for actions that threaten the regime or the leader, Lee said.

“The public executions are for watching South Korean videos, prostitution and drugs. North Korea wants to hide crimes that could be perceived as revealing weaknesses in the system, so the public executions are for crimes where the authority of Kim Jong Un is not undermined, and those that challenge his authority are kept private,” Lee said.

Wednesday’s report said that public executions now seem to be on the decline under Kim Jong Un, but secret executions are continuing. TJWG released earlier versions of its mapping project in 2017 and 2019.

Public executions have declined in the central northern border city of Hyesan, an area of focus in the report. The public executions there take place in areas where international monitoring may be difficult, like in the hills and mountains surrounding the Hyesan Airfield, or in fields removed from the city center, the report said.

“These results suggest that the Kim Jong Un regime is paying more attention to strengthening international surveillance of the human rights situation,” TJWG researcher Pak Ahyeong told RFA. “But this does not imply improvement in the human rights situation in North Korea. Private executions … should be closely monitored.

RFA has reported on public executions that took place after the period covered by TJWG’s report.

In August 2020, North Korea publicly executed six people including four party officials for operating a prostitution ring that involved female college students.

In October 2020, authorities publicly executed a fishing fleet captain for tuning into RFA. That December, they publicly executed a smuggler for violating COVID-19 prevention measures by crossing the Sino-Korean border.