In North Korea, people are often sent to prison without trial, sometimes for trivial crimes such as listening to a foreign radio, throwing away a paper with a picture of Kim Jong Il on it, or making an offhand remark deemed to have insulted the regime. One woman was arrested for disturbing the socialist order for singing a South Korean pop song. It didn’t matter that she learned the song from watching a North Korean propaganda film. Sometimes people are arrested and imprisoned and they have no idea what they have done.

Punishment for criminal behavior is determined by both the type of crime — political or nonpolitical — and the status of the individual. The underlying philosophy of punishment reflects both Marxist influences and Confucian moral precepts. According to the 1950 penal code, the purpose of punishment is explicitly Marxist: to suppress class enemies, educate the population in the spirit of "socialist patriotism," and reeducate and punish individuals for crimes stemming from "capitalist" thinking. However, the code's ambiguity, the clear official preference for rehabilitating individuals through a combination of punishment and reeducation, and additional severity for crimes against the state or family reflect the lack of distinction among politics, morality, and law in neo-Confucian thought. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Penalties for various types of crimes range from imprisonment, forced labor, banishment to remote areas, forfeiture of property, fines, loss of privileges or work status, and reeducation, to death. With the exception of political criminals, the objective is to return a reformed individual to an active societal role.*

There are indications that criminal law is applied differentially. An accused person's class and category can have a substantial effect on treatment meted out by the justice system. The severity of punishment for common crimes such as rape, robbery, and homicide apparently is influenced by such considerations. There also is considerable leeway in the classification of crime; a robbery can be classified as either a common crime with minor punishment or a political-economic crime with far harsher punishment. The classification of crimes also is open to political considerations.*

Punishment of Relatives in North Korea

A common tactic to keep people in line in North Korea is to threaten to harm the families of potential lawbreakers or people that might do something the government doesn’t like. Entire families have been imprisoned for trivial crimes against the state committed by one family member. Once when a child wrote “Death to Kim Jong Il” there was a long investigation and the child’s entire family was sent to a prison camp.

It is not uncommon for three generations to end up in prison for the crime of one individual and nephews and cousins have been ostracized and fired from their jobs for the actions of a distant relative they don’t even know. One North Korean woman told Sonny Efron of the Los Angeles Times, "If they find out I have talked, 10 generations of my family will be punished." Those punished often included cousin, nephews, grandparents, and in-laws.

One of the most high profile victims of this tactic and policy was the family of Sung Hye Rim, the one-time favored mistress of Kim Jong- il — leader of North Korea from 1994 to 2011 — and mother of his first son, Kim Jong Nam. John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Kim didn't even tell his father about Sung's existence. Not long after the two began living together, Kim Il Sung ordered his son to marry Kim Young Sook.. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2011]

“Divorced, five years older than Kim Jong Il, Sung eventually became a potential palace embarrassment. The North Korean secret police imprisoned many of Sung's friends and family members for fear they would spread word of the relationship...Those jailed included Sung's best friend, Kim Young-soon, who along with her entire family was dispatched to a concertina-wired gulag, where her parents, husband and son died. Experts say Sung became terrified of Kim Jong Il's fits of rage and fled to Russia, where she died in 2002.

Imprisonment in North Korea

Defectors have claimed that individuals suspected of political crimes have been taken from their homes by state security officials and sent without trial directly to political prison camps. According to a report by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, torture “is routine and severe.” There are no practical restrictions on the ability of the government to detain and imprison persons at will and to hold them incommunicado. Prison conditions have been described as “harsh” and “starvation and executions were common.” A common punishment is “reeducation through labor.” This practice consists of forced labor, such as logging, mining, or tending crops under harsh conditions, and reeducation consisting of memorizing Kim Jong Il’s speeches and being forced to participate in self-criticism sessions. It was reported in 2003 and again in 2006 that an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 persons were being held in detention camps in remote areas for political reasons. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007**]

North Korean law limits incarceration during investigation and interrogation to a period not to exceed two months. The period of incarceration, however, can be extended indefinitely with the approval of the Central Procurator's Office. The approval apparently is given quite freely. It is not uncommon for individuals to be detained for a year or longer without trial or charge. During interrogation, at least through the early 1980s, there was strong evidence that prisoners were routinely tortured or ill treated. Habeas corpus or its equivalent is not recognized in theory or practice. In addition, information about detainees is restricted, and it is often very difficult, if not impossible, for concerned family members to obtain any data about someone being detained.*

According to the U.S. State Department: Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse, and inadequate sanitary conditions and medical care. NGO, defector, and press reports noted the government operated several types of prisons, detention centers, and camps, including forced labor camps and camps for political prisoners. [Source: “2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Democratic People's Republic of Korea”, U.S. Department of State]
Reports indicated the state typically sent those sentenced to prison for nonpolitical crimes to re-education prisons, where authorities subjected prisoners to intense forced labor.

“Defectors noted they did not expect many prisoners in political prison camps and the detention system to survive. Detainees and prisoners consistently reported violence and torture. Defectors described witnessing public executions in political prison camps. According to defectors, prisoners received little to no food or medical care in some places of detention. Sanitation was poor, and former labor camp inmates reported they had no changes of clothing during their incarceration and were rarely able to bathe or wash their clothing”.

Types of Prisons and Detention Centers in North Korea

There apparently are several types of detention camps for convicted prisoners. Political criminals are sent to separate concentration camps managed by the State Security Department. Twelve such camps were reported to exist in 1991, holding between 100,000 and 150,000 prisoners and covering some 1,200 square kilometers. They are located in remote, isolated areas at Tongsin and H ich'n in Chagang Province; Onsng, Hoeryng, and Kyngsng in North Hamgyong Province; Tksng, Chongpyng, and Yodk in South Hamgyong Province; Yongbyon and Yongch'n in North Pyongan Province, and Kaech'n and Pukch'ang in South Pyongan Province. Convicted prisoners and their families are sent to these camps, where they are prohibited from marrying, required to grow their own food, and cut off from external communication (which was apparently once allowed). Detainees are classified as antiparty factionalists, antirevolutionary elements, or those opposed to Kim Jong Il's succession. There is conflicting information concerning whether individuals sent to these camps ever reenter society.*

A second set of prisons, or camps, is concerned with more traditional punishment and rehabilitation. Prisoners sent to these camps can reenter society after serving their sentences. Among such camps are prisons, prison labor centers, travel violation centers, and sanatoriums. The basic prison is located at the city or province level; some seventeen of these prisons were identified in 1991. They are managed by the Ministry of Public Security for the incarceration of "normal" criminals.*

Other types of prisons also exist. Labor prisons are found at the city or province level. Adult and youth centers house those convicted of normal criminal violations. There apparently are separate facilities for the incarceration of those who have attempted to violate travel restrictions or leave the country illegally. It is unclear, however, if these are in fact separate centers, or if those convicted of travel violations are placed in normal prisons. Lastly, minor political or ideological offenders or persons with religious convictions may be sent to sanatoriums where the offenses are treated as symptoms of mental disease. North Korean officials deny the existence of these camps, although they do admit to the existence of "education centers" for people who "commit crimes by mistake."

According to the U.S. State Department: NGO reports documented six types of detention facilities: kwanliso (political penal-labor camps), kyohwaso (correctional or re-education centers), kyoyangso (labor-reform centers), jipkyulso (collection centers for low-level criminals), rodong danryeondae (labor-training centers), and kuryujang or kamok (interrogation facilities or jails). According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, the Ministry of State Security administered kwanliso camps, and either it or the Ministry of Social Security administered the other detention centers. [Source: “2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Democratic People's Republic of Korea”, U.S. Department of State]

Conditions in North Korean Labor Camps

According to the U.S. State Department: According to a March report by the HRNK, the government operated six kwanliso–Camps 14, 15, 16, 18, and 25, as well as Choma-bong Restricted Area. According to KINU’s most recent estimate in 2013, there were between 80,000 and 120,000 prisoners in the kwanliso. Defectors claimed the kwanliso camps contained unmarked graves, barracks, worksites, and other prison facilities. KINU identified the five kwanliso facilities as Gaecheon (Camp 14), Yodok (Camp 15), Hwaseong/Myeonggan (Camp 16), Gaechon (Camp 18), and Cheongjin (Camp 25). In addition the HRNK reported that the Choma-bong Restricted Area, constructed between 2013 and 2014, had not been confirmed by eyewitness reports, but it appeared to be operational and bore all the characteristics of a kwanliso. [Source: “2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Democratic People's Republic of Korea”, U.S. Department of State]

Kwanliso camps consist of total-control zones, where incarceration is for life, and may include “revolutionary” or re-education zones from which prisoners may be released. Those whom the state considered hostile to the government or who committed political crimes reportedly received indefinite sentencing terms in political prison camps. In many cases the state also detained all family members if one member was accused or arrested. According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, children were allowed to leave the camp after rising numbers of defectors made it difficult to send entire defector families to political prison camps. The government continued to deny the existence of political prison camps.

The South Korean and international press reported that the kyohwaso re-education through labor camps held populations of up to thousands of political prisoners, economic criminals, and ordinary criminals. A March HRNK report entitled North Korea’s Long-Term Prison Labor Facility Kyohwaso Number 1, Kaechon postulated that the government may have operated more than 20 kyohwaso. That report, which relied on extensive analysis of satellite imagery, estimated the population of Kyohwaso Number 1, located near Kaechon in South Pyongan Province, at 2,000 to 6,000 prisoners.

A September report by the HRNK entitled North Korea’s Long-Term Prison Labor Facility Kyohwaso Number 12, Jongori stated the kyohwaso held both political and nonpolitical prisoners. According to the HRNK, based on extensive analysis of satellite imagery, Kyohwaso Number 12, located near Hoeryong City in North Hamgyong Province, held approximately 5,000 individuals, the majority of whom were accused of illegal border crossings into China. The HRNK described frequent deaths within Kyohwaso Number 12 from injury, illness, and physical and mental abuse by prison officials, and included first-hand accounts of crematorium operations designed to dispose of prisoners’ bodies surreptitiously.

In both kyohwaso and kwanliso prison camps, conditions were extremely brutal, according to the HRNK’s 2017 report The Parallel Gulag: North Korea’s “An-Jeon-Bu” Prison Camps. The report cited defector accounts of imprisonment and forced labor and the provision of below-subsistence-level food rations “for essentially political crimes.” Physical abuse by prison guards was systematic. Anecdotal reports from the South Korea-based NGO Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) 2019 White Paper on Human Rights stated that in some prisons authorities held women in separate units from men and often subjected the women to sexual abuse. Reports from previous years attributed rape to the impunity and unchecked power of prison guards and other officials. OHCHR reporting noted that, contrary to international human rights standards that require women prisoners to be guarded exclusively by female prison staff to prevent sexual violence, female escapees reported they were overseen almost exclusively by male officers. In the same report, victims alleged widespread sexual abuse at holding centers (jipkyulso) and pretrial detention and interrogation centers (kuryujang) by secret police (bowiseong) or police interrogators, as well as during transfer between facilities.

Executions in North Korea

North Korea’s criminal code stipulates that the death penalty can be applied for vaguely defined offenses such as “crimes against the state” and “crimes against the people.” A December 2007 amendment to the penal code extended the death penalty to additional crimes, including non-violent offenses such as fraud and smuggling, as long as authorities determine the crime is “extremely serious.” [Source: Human Rights Watch]

The top-ranking defector Hwang Jang-yop said, "In 1995, seven people including actors wee executed in Pyongyang before a crowd of 300,000 people for producing a pornographic film to earn foreign currency." One defector who worked extensively in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe said that two of his North Korea colleagues were executed for having sexual relations with foreign women and the defector said he worried about his life simply because he spoke Russian.

Based on defector and refugee reports, the U.S. Department of State has noted that the regime has executed political prisoners, opponents of the regime, some repatriated defectors, and others, including military officers suspected of espionage or of plotting against Kim Jong Il. The death penalty is mandatory for activities carried out “in collusion with imperialists” or those aimed at “suppressing the national liberation struggle.” Prisoners have been sentenced to death for such ill-defined “crimes” as “ideological divergence,” “opposing socialism,” and “counterrevolutionary crimes.” [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007**]

The defector Kim Hyeongsoo told Reuters he decided to escape after witnessing a particularly gruesome execution in 2008 "Everyone has seen a public execution in North Korea," he said. "On a day of execution all work places have to close and all schools, from middle and above, have to suspend lessons so that people can (attend)." [Source: Reuters, March 11, 2016]

Victoria Kim wrote in the Los Angeles Times:“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 cellphones 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 one of the few nations that continue to conduct public executions. 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.” [Source: Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times, June 10, 2019]

1,400 Public Executions in North Korea Between 2000 and 2013

A total of 1,382 North Koreans were publicly executed between 2000 and 2013, with the number peaking at 160 in 2009, according to research by the Korean Institute for National Unification, funded by the South Korean government. According to Daily NK: The figures, which cannot be independently verified, were said to be based on in-depth interviews with North Korean defectors and confirmed by witnesses in the country. The number of executions carried out away from the public eye is also impossible to ascertain. North Korean media have reported only two executions in 2014 and none in the first six months of 2015, year, according to Cornell University’s Death Penalty Worldwide research group. During 2009, only one was officially reported. [Source: Kim Seong Hwan, Daily NK, part of the North Korea network, July 6, 2015]

“The South Korean newspaper Joongang Daily reported in late 2013 that thousands of North Koreans had been forced to attend executions by firing squad held in stadiums, the first known large-scale public executions under Kim Jong-un’s leadership. Public executions are considered to be a way to keep the population in line. According to witness testimonies from the DPRK, public executions for watching or distributing South Korean films and drug smuggling have increased in recent years, as well sentences for “crimes against the regime”. Many more are punished by being sent to work-camps, with Amnesty International estimating that 200,000 North Koreans are in prison.

North Korea does not allow access to human rights groups, but an Amnesty report confirms the 2013 spike in executions, claiming that at least 70 death sentences were carried out in the DPRK, from a total of 776 around the world. Amnesty said the actual number was likely to be far higher, but even without taking this into account North Korea, a country with 0.3 percent of the world’s people, carries out nearly 10 percent of its confirmed executions. This total is still less than Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which account for 80 percent of the world’s confirmed executionthe U.S. executed 761 people between 2000 and 2013, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, but many countries, most notably China, refuse to reveal the number of people sentenced to death by the state.

Since 1996, the South Korean unification institute has published annual statistics on executions. This year’s figures were based on testimonies of 221 North Korean defectors, selected based on demographics and background, of the total 1,396 escapees who came to South Korea last year.

Executions During the North Korean Famine in the 1990s

Selling grain, illegally crossing the border into China and stealing items to sell for food were crimes punishable by death during the famine of the 1990s. One defector who arrived in South Korea in May, 1997 told the Korea Times, "People go the extreme of stealing phone or electric lines, which contain copper, and sell them to smugglers from China. And those who are caught are shot to death in public executions." One woman said that she had witnessed the public executions of seven people, including two soldiers caught stealing phone lines.

"I remembered seeing a guy," one high school student told the Korea Times, "who had been caught stealing rice, shot to death as his family and another 20,000 people watched on." The man's family "was banished to a remote mountainous area."

One witness who said he saw a condemned man killed before a firing squad told Time: “first the man stares at the rifleman in front of him. Then the guard yells , ‘Fire,’ and the man closes his eyes, Then his head snaps back when the bullets hits him.”

North Korea Publicly Executes 80: Some for Watching South Korean Dramas

In November 2013, FoxNews.com reported: “As many as 80 people were publicly executed in North Korea, some for offenses as minor as watching South Korean movies or possessing a Bible. South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo reported that the so-called criminals were put to death in seven cities across North Korea on Nov. 3, in the first known large-scale public executions by the Kim Jong-un regime. A source, who is familiar with internal affairs in the North and who recently visited the country, told the paper that about 10 people were killed in each city. [Source: FoxNews.com, November 12, 2013]

“Eight people — their heads covered with white bags — were tied to stakes at a local stadium in the city of Wonsan, before authorities shot them with a machine gun, according to the source. Wonsan authorities gathered a crowd of 10,000 people, including children, at Shinpoong Stadium and forced them to watch the killings. “I heard from the residents that they watched in terror as the corpses were (so) riddled by machine-gun fire that they were hard to identify afterward,” the JoongAng Ilbo source said.

“Most of the Wonsan victims were charged with watching or illegally trafficking South Korean videos, involvement in prostitution, or possessing a Bible. Relatives or accomplices of the execution victims implicated in their alleged crimes were sent to prison camps. There is no clear reason for the executions. One government official noted they occurred in cities that are centers of economic development. Wonsan is a port city that Kim is reportedly planning to make a tourist destination by building an airport, hotels and a ski resort on Mount Masik.

Simultaneous executions in seven cities could suggest an extreme measure by the North Korean government to quell public unrest or any capitalistic inclinations that may accompany its development projects. The common theme of the persecution was crimes related to South Korea — like watching South Korean films — or corruption of public morals, especially sexual misconduct. North Korean law permits executions for conspiring to overthrow the government, treason and terrorism. But the country has also been known to order public executions for minor infractions such as religious activism, cellphone use and stealing food, in an effort to intimidate the public.

Some experts questioned whether the executions were related to earlier executions of members of the Unhasu Orchestra, a state-run orchestra that First Lady Ri Sol-ju used to participate in, according to the report. “As the news that people were brutally killed in public executions spread in the countryside, the people have been spreading rumors that say that Kim Jong-un has started a terror campaign in response to the Ri Sol-ju’s pornography scandal,” the source told JoongAng Ilbo. There were no executions in the capital of Pyongyang, where Kim depends on the support of the country’s elite. The young leader continues to build luxury and recreational facilities in the capital, including a new water park.

Video of a North Korea Execution

In 2005, Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, a Japanese non-government organization, released a video showing what it said were are summary trials and public executions of defectors in North Korea. David McNeill wrote in the Irish Times: “Shot with a concealed camera, one scene shows a man being shot to death by a firing squad in front of about 1,000 spectators in what the NGO says is the northern city of Yuson, close to the Chinese border. The executed man, identified as Han Bok-Nam, is accused by a security official in the video of being an "atrocity in human skin" who had "lured sweet women with lying words" and "sold them to human traffickers abroad" — a cover charge for aiding defectors, says the organisation. "Helping anyone escape from that country is classed as criminal activity and is termed "human trafficking" or "abduction", it claims. [Source: David McNeill, Irish Times, March 29, 2005]

“In a second scene, two identified men are also executed by firing squad after being accused of trying to defect from the country. Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, says the killings took place on March 1st and 2nd in front of the families of the condemned men. "This evidence proves what we have been saying for some time and what has been common testimony from defectors coming out of North Korea," said Hiroshi Kato, general secretary of the NGO. "The Pyongyang government is killing people who are caught and brought back. We believe these sort of public executions take place every week."

“Hundreds of thousands of defectors from the north are scattered throughout Asia, including an estimated 200-300,000 in China alone, where most are hiding from authorities who consider them illegal migrants. Rumours have long circulated that among those caught and repatriated to North Korea, at least some are killed as an example to others. "The purpose of these executions is political. The government is saying to those people who are watching, 'This is what happens when you try to cross the border'," said Mr Kato. The footage, which has already been released to a number of Japanese TV networks, shows 12 suspects being executed for crimes including illegal production of opium, and the buying and selling foreign currency, as well as illegal exit and entry.

Eyewitnesses of North Korean Public Executions

Victoria Kim wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “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 state-owned power lines. “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.” [Source: Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times, June 10, 2019]

“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.”A new report by Seoul-based nonprofit Transitional Justice Working Group has identified and mapped out more than 300 public executions and dozens of burial sites wherein lie those killed by the state.

“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 appear to have been largely discontinued since 2005, according to the report. The most common sites of public executions were riverbanks, fields and other open spaces, 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 the 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.”

Watching a Public Execution in North Korea as a Child

Kang Jae Hyok, a defector from Hamheung, North Korea, wrote in the Daily NK: “While in North Korea, I witnessed with my own eyes five public executions and two public hangings. Even now, I vividly remember the period of my life in kindergarten where I observed the public shootings as if it were unfolding right in front of me now. It was sometime in Spring, 1979. I held my father’s hand as we headed for a public stadium in Sinpo where a public trial had been set up. At the stadium there were already 300 workers from companies and their families. My friends and I in kindergarten sat in the front row as we were short. [Source: Kang Jae Hyok, Reporter, Defector from Hamheung, Daily NK, September 21, 2006]

“The judge sentenced Choi to the death penalty on the grounds of being a national traitor who practiced murder and attempted to escape to South Korea. After the trail was complete, the guard of People’s Safety Agency dragged him inside a tent behind the court. About 10 minutes later, he was brought back and I saw his frontside.

“A white fabric was tied around his eyes and mouth so I was unable to see his face clearly. Inside the tent, the guards had already prepared him for death by putting pebbles in his mouth. Then ropes were tied around his chest, stomach and legs against a wooden pole. The firing team of 4 people on standby held their rifles in front of Choi waiting for the command from military officials. The commands ‘ready, fire,’ ‘shoot, shoot, shoot’ and the sounds of gunfire echoed as blood spurted in all directions. He hung his head and collapsed. His body was dumped in a straw bag and thrown in a car disappearing off somewhere.

“I didn’t want to see anything so as I walked home I stared at the ground. Since that night, I have been traumatized with fear. Whenever I close my eyes, I would cover myself with my blanket as I could see blood spurting out and the sound of the gunfire. For a few months, I lived in constant trauma. Afterwards, I made all attempts not to go to public executions. Even from afar I would uncontrollably cover my eyes and ears. Even during the severe food crisis of the mid-90s, I witnessed some gruesome sights, however nothing compares to the mental repercussions of the public shooting I saw at 7 years of age.”

Public Trial Before an Execution in North Korea

Describing the public trial before for the execution above, Kang Jae Hyok, a defector from Hamheung, North Korea, wrote in the Daily NK: “Where the court had been temporarily set, seated were the prosecutors and judges from the Central Procurator’s Office and Central Court, as well as the jury. I could only see the back of the condemned criminal Choi who sat opposite the judges. Then the investigations and trials began. Choi was a mariner of a small steam boat. In winter 1978, he and the chief engineer made a promise to defect to South Korea utilizing the boat, so as the boat departed they soon headed for open waters. At the time, there were 6 other crew members aboard the ship. [Source: Kang Jae Hyok, Reporter, Defector from Hamheung, Daily NK, September 21, 2006]

“One of the crew members became suspicious as the ship that was out to fish Alaskan pollacks was not hitting waters but floating towards the southeast. Choi, who had observed this, began to persuade with the aid of the chief engineer the crew members one by one, to defect to South Korea. But a bosun, wireless transmitter and kitchenette obstinately opposed the idea, tied the two men up and locked them in a cabin.

“Soon after, the mariner and chief engineer were untied but then were attacked. Both sides were putting on acts as if they were ready to die and consequently a bloody fight began. In amongst the fight, the bosun and kitchenette were killed and the mariner Choi and wireless transmitter encountered injuries. At that moment, the wireless transmitter sent warning signals to Sinpo Marine Company. The marine company who received the warning signals then contacted the navy for assistance. The navy further contacted the coastal patrol boats who then found the boat. By that time, the boat had reached the open waters in front of Wonsan.

On seeing the coastal defense, Choi killed the wireless transmitter and attempted suicide. However, he was unable to kill himself. Choi was arrested by the navy, received medical treatment then sent to Sinpo police office for preliminary examinations. ‘You killed a person…’ I began to shake as I heard the prosecutor spoke. After the prosecutor finished his inquiries, the judge asked him whether or not he would admit guilty. He answered guilty to everything The judge sentenced Choi to the death penalty on the grounds of being a national traitor who practiced murder and attempted to escape to South Korea. After the trail was complete, the guard of People’s Safety Agency dragged him inside a tent behind the court. About 10 minutes later, he was brought back and “executed.

Labour Hero Executed in North Korea For Luxurious Lifestyle

In January 2008, AFP reported: “A cooperative farm chief who was once honoured by North Korea's founding president has been publicly executed for starting a private farm to support his luxurious lifestyle, a South Korean aid group said yesterday.The unidentified man — said to be a member of the national legislature — and two colleagues were put to death by firing squad on December 5 in Pyongsong City, 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Pyongyang, the Good Friends group quoted sources as saying.The farm chief, his accountant and the local county's party secretary were accused of selling produce from an unauthorised farming operation to lead a luxurious lifestyle, said a newsletter from the group which provides aid to the hardline communist state.Each was shot 90 times it said. Four others were sentenced to life imprisonment and the families of those executed were taken to concentration camps. [Source: AFP, January 4, 2008]

“The aid group refused to elaborate on its newsletter and the National Intelligence Service declined comment on the report.Good Friends said the ringleader, who headed a cooperative farm in Mundok County 50 kilometers north of Pyongyang, had been awarded the coveted title of labour hero.Then-president Kim Il-Sung, who died in 1994, had several times praised the farm chief and once gave him a wristwatch printed with his autograph, it said.The farm chief was accused of failing to register 196 acres (79 hectares) of farmland that had been cultivated over the past decade. He allegedly fed retired soldiers with the produce and used them as his private bodyguards."He became brazen enough to tear down a farmhouse that had been built with President Kim's on-the-spot guidance and build a new home there," the aid group said.

“The man "acted like a king" in Mundok County and had been deemed untouchable because of his status and the gang of retired soldiers who followed him everywhere, Good Friends said.Given his honourable career, he was charged with "betraying the guidance" of the late president, it said, adding that executions of people dubbed labour heroes were rare.All those put to death were said to have lived in upmarket two-storey homes and driven illicit cars.Following the executions, Good Friends said each province summoned cooperative farm chiefs and local party secretaries and warned them of harsh punishment for diverting farm produce.Kim Il-Sung introduced collective farming in North Korea in the 1950s in what was later seen as a disastrous move.”

150,000 North Koreans Witness Execution of Factory Boss for Making International Phone Calls

In October 2007, a North Korean factory chief accused of making international phone calls was executed by a firing squad before 150,000 spectators in a stadium according to the Good Friends aid agency, a South Korean group. Fox News reported: “The North executed the head of a factory in South Pyongan province for making international calls on 13 phones he installed in a factory basement, the aid group said. He was executed by a firing squad in a stadium before a crowd of 150,000. Six people were crushed to death and 34 others injured in an apparent stampede as they left the stadium, the aid group said. [Source: Fox News, November 27, 2007]

“Most North Koreans are banned from communicating with the outside world, part of the regime's authoritarian policies seeking to prevent any challenge to the iron-fisted rule of Kim Jong Il. The North in recent months has carried out four similar public executions by firing squad against regional officials and heads of factories, the aid group said. "It is aimed at educating [North Koreans] to control society and prevent crimes," Good Friends head Venerable Pomnyun said at a news conference.

“Good Friends, which did not say how it obtained the information, gave no exact figures of the public executions this year. Some of the group's previous reports of what was happening inside the North later have been confirmed. The report came a week after a U.N. General Assembly committee adopted a draft resolution expressing "very serious concern" at reports of widespread human rights violations in North Korea, including public executions. Public executions had declined since 2000 amid international criticism but have been increasing, targeting officials accused of drug trafficking, embezzlement and other crimes, the said in a report on the North's human rights.”

According to Kyodo in 2018, there is now 12 years of compulsory education — one year in kindergarten, five years in primary school, three years in lower secondary school and another three years in higher secondary school.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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