How Kim Jong Un's Government Cements Control Over North Korea With Public Executions

North Korea
Men walk past a street monitor showing news of North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile test in Tokyo on July 4. Toru Hanai/Reuters

The North Korean regime cements control over its people by carrying out public executions for crimes as trivial as stealing and distributing media from South Korea, a report has found.

Research by the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG), a nongovernmental organization based in South Korea, was based on interviews with 375 defectors from North Korea about state killings in the totalitarian state.

"Our interviewees stated that public executions take place near river banks, in river beds, near bridges, in public sports stadiums, in the local marketplace, on school grounds in the fringes of the city, or on mountainsides," the report said.

"The major charges for such killings as reported by the interviewees included: stealing, transporting and selling copper components from factory machinery and electric cables; stealing livestock...stealing farm produce...murder and manslaughter; human trafficking...distributing South Korean media; organised prostitution; sexual assault; drug smuggling; and gang fighting," it continued.

North Korea rejects all charges of human rights abuses in the country.

Some of these crimes were not punished equally, the report said. It cited a U.N. report that found sexual assault by officials and soldiers often went unpunished, and thus laws against such crimes may be "applied selectively."

Meanwhile, interviewees said that being from a "bad family background" might increase the chances of someone being executed for an offense, or for the purposes of government control "as a means of establishing a new precedent by creating an atmosphere of fear around certain behaviours the government wishes to emphasise as unacceptable."

In political and correctional prisons, both public and private executions took place, the report said, "as a means of inciting fear and intimidation among potential escapees among the inmates about the consequences of trying to flee."

The U.N. holds that, in countries where the death penalty is still legal, it should only be carried out for the most serious crimes such as cases of premeditated murder.

The TJWG conducts its work because it hopes to form part of an eventual justice process when regime change takes place in North Korea.

"Despite the inability to predict when a transition may occur in North Korea, or what form that may take, undertaking a fair and transparent process of transitional justice will be a crucial part of determining the success of peace-building and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula," the report said.