Conditions in North Korea are often shrouded in mystery to outsiders, but a July 19 report from a research group in South Korea provides startling insights into what it referred to as an "atmosphere of fear" created by numerous public executions that the group considers to be human rights abuses.
"The North Korean regime has long employed the most brutal means of abuse to control its population and retain its grip on power," reads the document, titled "Mapping Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea."
The report, a project of the Transnational Justice Working Group in Seoul, South Korea, was compiled over two years of interviewing 375 former North Korea residents who fled their country. It maps several locations that researchers believe to be mass graves, execution spots and areas containing hard evidence of the abuses.
"Interviewees said that executions often occur upon the issuing of a new decree from the central government, as a means of establishing a new precedent by creating an atmosphere of fear around certain [behaviors] the government wishes to [emphasize] as unacceptable," the report says.
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North Korean officials reportedly publicly executed people accused of crimes that Americans might be jailed for, such as murder, manslaughter, sexual assault and running prostitution rings. North Koreans were also allegedly executed for lesser crimes such as sending out South Korean media and stealing corn, rice and livestock.
"Many interviewees said that the final decision for a public execution was often influenced by individuals having a 'bad' family background in addition to the crime they were alleged to have committed,” the report added.
Other crimes punishable by death included "stealing, transporting and selling copper components from factory machinery and electric cables." Government officials risked being put to death for espionage, embezzlement, and using goods or money for personal luxury.
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Hanging used to be the execution method of choice, though it has fallen out of favor amid rising international pressure.
"The most common method of killings since that time has been by shooting," the report continues. "However, we received testimony of a person being beaten to death by police at a city-level police station ... as a means of execution, with the interviewee stating that 'some crimes were considered not worth wasting bullets on.'"
Authorities charged with espionage are often beaten to death before their trial and after an initial investigation, one former public official said.
"Research on North Korean criminal procedure states that this preliminary examination period ... without oversight from the courts, is often a period of interrogation, torture, prolonged detention and forced confession, which does not reflect due legal process," the study says. "In such cases, it was reported that the person to be executed can be forced to dig their own burial pit in a discreet location, before being beaten to death and buried."
The revelations come amid increased scrutiny on the country's treatment of prisoners. In June, imprisoned 22-year-old student Otto Warmbier was returned to the U.S. in a coma and died; that same month, videos were released showing North Korean officials reportedly beating and torturing suspects during interrogations, notes Metro.