Public executions in North Korea? Report raises fear of new repression

A South Korean newspaper reports that dozens have been executed in North Korea; in at least one case, in front of 10,000. If true, it could signal a new wave of repression for the brutal regime.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the fourth meeting of the company commanders and political instructors of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang.

North Korea’s brutal and secretive regime may have unleashed a new wave of repression, executing dozens of people in public spectacles in seven cities last week, according to a report in a major South Korean newspaper Tuesday. 

The report in JoongAng Ilbo was sourced to a single, unidentified person described as someone “familiar with internal affairs in the North who recently visited the country,” and, as with most events concerning North Korea, was impossible to independently confirm. But a group of North Korean defectors living in South Korea partially confirmed the account, giving it more credence.

If true, the crackdown would be one of the most severe such event to have taken place in the two years since Kim Jong-un became leader. The public nature of last week’s acts may signal Pyongyang’s growing resolve to tamp any sentiments to Western and South Korean culture enabled by technological change and North Korea’s own economic initiatives.

JoongAng Ilbo said that many of the alleged executions were intended to demonstrate on a massive scale the punishment for watching unsanctioned foreign films and distributing pornography, the two most common transgressions.

In its online English-language version, the newspaper included a gruesome description of the events in Wonsan, a port city on the east coast:

In Wonsan, eight people were tied to a stakes at a local stadium, had their heads covered with white sacks and were shot with a machine gun, according to the source. 

According to witnesses of the execution, the source said, Wonsan authorities gathered some 10,000 people, including children, at Shinpoong Stadium, which has a capacity of 30,000 people, and forced them to watch.

The Wonsan victims were mostly charged with watching or illegally trafficking South Korean videos, being involved in prostitution or being in possession of a Bible.  

The timing and locations of the coordinated executions may be indicative of the regime’s goals, the paper said:

The idea that executions would be held simultaneously on a weekend in seven cities suggests an extreme measure by the central government to stamp out public unrest or capitalistic zeal accompanying its development projects. 

The newspaper’s report was corroborated by the web-based North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, which is run by defectors from the North. The organization told Agence France-Presse that its own anonymous sources had warned of a wave of repressions several months ago

The choice of Wonsan and six other cities may hint at the rationale behind the government’s actions, analysts said. Wonsan has recently made headlines as the site of North Korea’s large-scale effort to lure foreign investment, featuring a free economic zone, luxury beachfront hotels, and even a nearby Western-style ski resort, all under construction.  The capital Pyongyang was likely avoided because of the presence of foreign diplomats and some foreign media.

Other cities where executions may have also taken place, according to JoongAng Ilbo’s report, are the port city of Chongjin, an industrial hub with a large Chinese presence, and Pyongsong, a former closed city located an hour’s drive from the capital that was recently open to tourists. 

It is possible that the reported crackdown had been triggered by the government’s growing unease at the trickle of cultural influence brought in by Korea’s tentative pace of economic development, observers said.

“The regime is obviously afraid of potential changes in people's mindsets and is preemptively trying to scare people off,” a representative of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity told AFP.

Tuesday’s report recalled other publicized executions of recent years, such as the rumored putting to death of nine Unhasu Orchestra performers, including Kim Jong-un’s former girlfriend, for pornography-related crimes. But this most recent report signals that the campaign against foreign cultural influence is reaching fever pitch.

“Reports on public executions across the country would be certain to have a chilling effect on the rest of the people,” Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea analyst with the International Crisis Group in Seoul, told The Telegraph. “All these people want to do is to survive and for their families to survive. The incentives for not breaking the law are very clear now.”

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