N.Korea may be cutting back on public executions

North Korea, under Kim Jong Un, is accused of using public executions as a means to keeping its population in a state of fear. (AFP pic)

SEOUL: North Korea continues to carry out state killings as a way of intimidating its citizens, campaigners said on Tuesday, although the number of executions may be declining in the face of mounting international pressure.

Pyongyang has long been accused of using state killings to instil fear among its population, and leader Kim Jong Un has executed top aides in the past – including his powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in 2013.

A new report by the Transitional Justice Working Group documented hundreds of public executions over several decades – the most recent in 2015 – for charges as trivial as stealing copper or a cow.

“The rules on public execution demand that three shooters fire three rounds each into the body of the condemned person, for a total of nine bullets,” said Seoul-based group, which seeks to highlight what it says are grievous human rights abuses by the North.

This was a widely used tactic, especially against the elites, it added, “designed to maximise public intimidation, in the knowledge that information about execution methods will spread throughout the country”.

But the study – based on the testimonies of 610 North Korean defectors – also suggested that Pyongyang was growing more concerned about international scrutiny, forcing it to scale back on the practice.

“Since 2005, public hangings are reported to have ceased or at least decreased markedly in frequency, with some attributing this shift to international pressure to end the practice,” the report said.

Ethan Shin, one of the authors of the report, said the study indicated a decline in death sentences in the reclusive regime.

“Although verification is impossible, it looks like the number of public executions is on a downward trend,” Shin told AFP.

“Secret executions may be increasing but North Korea appears to be more cautious about issuing death penalties as it seeks recognition as a normal state,” he added.

The report said Pyongyang has rejected requests from UN member states to submit statistics on the application of the death penalty but has said that executions were “not open to the public in principle”.

‘Ongoing repression’

A landmark 2014 report by a UN Commission of Inquiry documented rampant human rights abuses in the North, ranging from rape, torture and extrajudicial killings to the operation of political prisons.

The regime is estimated to have up to 120,000 North Koreans in the camps, where many detainees are said to have been jailed merely for being related to individuals deemed to be a threat to the state, rather than being convicted of internationally recognised criminal offences.

North Korea says it respects human rights and dismisses allegations of violations as fabrications told by North Korean defectors, whom it denounces as “human scum”.

In a statement carried by its official Korean Central News Agency last year, Pyongyang said its “socialism guarantees the genuine human rights institutionally, legally and practically”.

The new campaign group report comes amid media reports that a senior North Korean official was executed by a firing squad in March following the collapse of a second summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Hanoi.

South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported last month that Kim Hyok Chol was sentenced to death for “betraying the Supreme Leader” after he was “won over by the US” during pre-summit negotiations.

Some previous South Korean reports of executions in the North have later proved to be unfounded, but Kim has not been mentioned by North Korea’s state media since the Hanoi summit, which ended abruptly without an agreement.

Since last year Kim Jong Un engaged in a flurry of diplomacy including three summits with the South’s President Moon Jae-in and two meetings with Trump.

But the issue of North Korea’s human rights abuses has largely been off the table, TJWG said, adding it will continue documenting the violations rampant in the reclusive regime.

“This work remains vital, especially when state leaders are reluctant to address the ongoing repression of so many,” the report said.