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Politics of Public Executions and Power Succession

Posted July. 17, 2010 11:59,   


A North Korean defector still shivers when thinking of a public execution he witnessed at his hometown in the North in 1997. A 30-something worker was publicly executed by firing squad at a market. The worker was dragged to the venue of the execution, with his legs seemingly having been broken during torture. He stole his neighbor’s dog but the crime he was executed for was damaging a badge showing the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung while burning his clothes to destroy evidence. The execution was carried out as scripted. A security agent listed the crimes of the accused and asked onlookers if they could forgive him. Some said “no” and he was immediately executed. The worker’s family was also forced to watch at the scene.

Such inhumane brutality seems possible only in hell but is a fact of life in North Korea. Just three days ago, brothers in their 20s were publicly executed in Hoeryong, North Hamkyong Province. North Korean authorities conduct public executions to instill fear in their people. The North’s two major security agencies – the Ministry of People’s Security and the Ministry of State Security – are bent on rounding up “impure elements” in a competition to show their loyalty to Kim Jong Un, the heir apparent to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. They indiscriminately arrest people who try to flee the North, those who help them, and holders of mobile phones to the extent that their prisons have reached maximum capacity. Such inhumane politics of fear aimed at promoting the atmosphere of the third-generation power succession is despicable.

The public executions are not limited to ordinary residents. Former Railway Minister Kim Yong Sam was publicly executed in March last year after some 100 locomotives were scrapped as hungry workers stole and sold components from them. In March this year, Pak Nam Gi, former finance director of the ruling North Korean Workers’ Party who oversaw last year’s currency revaluation, also faced the firing squad due to the disastrous results of the currency reform. Doing anything to survive is inevitable amid politics of fear regardless of status. North Korean military commanders likely ordered the March 26 attack on the South Korean warship Cheonan to avoid responsibility for their defeat in an inter-Korean naval skirmish in the Yellow Sea last year.

Some 20,000 North Korean escapees have vividly testified to the Stalinist state’s inhumanity. Some posted video footage of public executions in the North. Diplomatic rhetoric urging Pyongyang to improve its human rights situation is too carefree a response. Moreover, groups in South Korea that find fault with every little detail in the South’s human rights and administration but turn a blind eye to Kim Jong Il’s reign of terror also violate morality.

Editorial Writer Bhang Hyeong-nam (hnbhang@donga.com)