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S. Korea bars secret video of the North

A tape of a public execution, smuggled into South Korea, is kept off the air.

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The taped executions took place near Hoeryang, along the Chinese border. South Korean intelligence officers have told Western reporters the tape is far too detailed to be a fake. Yet officially the tape's authenticity is "still under investigation."

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North Korean refugees claim that an underground group called Youth League for Freedom shot the tape, which records about 104 minutes over two days.

The camera is held at mid-body and initial images are of a rush of dark winter coats, a thronging crowd, police officers pushing people into line. Some 1,500 persons appear scattered around a rocky ravine. At one point, a white "propaganda truck" pulls up and over a megaphone one hears a charge read out. The accused are described as prostitute traffickers. (Sources insist the executed were helping Koreans escape the North.)

In due course, white posts are hammered into the ground. Then two men are escorted from a tent. Their arms are tied to the post. People stand on top of bicycles to see. A woman is heard to say, "I can't watch this." A police chief's voice calls out, "Aim, fire, fire, fire." Nine shots by three soldiers ring out from behind the prisoners, who instantly fall. An official with a megaphone can be heard saying, "How pathetic is the end of these traitors of the fatherland."

Such footage is rare, coming from one of the world's most closed states. Since 1956, North Korea has been sorted into a hierarchy of those with greater or lesser adoration for the ruling Kim family. At the top is a "core class" of supporters, followed by a "wavering class" whose loyalty is questioned, and a "hostile class" that are outcast. The Kim family "recognizes only a part of the population," notes Stephen Bradner, a veteran US adviser in Seoul. "The rest are considered disposable."

Evidence of a system of gulags where hundreds of thousands of the hostile class live has been confirmed by satellite imagery. From 1995 to 1999, between 1 and 3 million starved to death. Detailed knowledge of the North is difficult to obtain.

Nearly half the geographical area is off limits. Distrust of foreigners is profound. A fifth of the population are alleged to be informers, and a half dozen security agencies compete with each other to quash dissent, say US sources.

What the tape shows, apart from punishment seemingly in excess of the alleged crime, is that the accused have no lawyer, are not allowed to speak, and have no appeal, says Abraham Lee, a human rights lawyer in Seoul who also heads Refuge Pnan, which offers sanctuary for refugees.

US and Japanese sources describe a practice of stuffing rocks in the mouths of the accused - making them unable to shout out last words against the regime.

Many activists express dismay at a disinterest in the fate of fellow Koreans. Gyeng-seob Oh, who runs the newsletter NKnet, says, "When I first saw the footage, I thought it would be front-page news. But South Korea, the most important market for this information, was not interested."

The only public airing of the tape in Korea came March 25 in a basement room of the Seoul National Assembly Library. One refugee testified that Pyongyang had in recent years declared that executions should be kept indoors. A large public outdoor gathering suggests that a crackdown may be under way, experts mused.

Another refugee plaintively asked the group what South Koreans will say to North Koreans "once North Korea is liberated. "What will we say when they ask us, 'What did you do to help?' "

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