Although North Korea goes to great lengths to conceal its use of capital punishment, our research reveals that the country sentences its citizens to death for an astonishing array of crimes, ranging from political offenses to petty theft. We have just updated our research based on our review of North Korea’s amendment to its Penal Code (in the original language) and other sources that shed light on the country’s arbitrary use of the death penalty as an instrument of state power.
The North Korean Criminal Code includes 22 death-eligible crimes, most of them defined simply as “especially serious” categories of criminal offenses. But the term “especially serious” is interpreted with Orwellian irony: executions have reportedly been carried out for offenses such as stealing six cows or half a sack of rice. Perhaps the most farcical provision of the North Korean penal code provides that an individual convicted of an “especially serious” case of being a “scoundrel” is punishable by death.
Death sentences may also be imposed for political offenses such as “ideological divergence,” “opposing socialism,” and “counterrevolutionary crimes.” In practice, the regime appears to use capital punishment not only to punish perceived dissidents, but also to rid itself of individuals who have somehow embarrassed the regime. For instance, a former Cabinet official who was in charge of talks with South Korea was reportedly executed by firing squad for policy failure in 2010, and in 2012, Kim Chol, North Korea’s Vice Minister of the People’s Armed Forces, was reportedly executed for drinking alcohol during the mourning period for former leader Kim Jong-il.
Most executions reportedly take place in North Korea’s notorious political prison camps that hold prisoners who have allegedly committed political crimes, along with every member of their families for “guilt by association.” Political or “anti-state” offenses are considered most serious, and those who are convicted of such offenses are never released from detention. People have reportedly been detained for listening to South Korean broadcasts, possessing Bibles (in spite of constitutional protection of religious freedom), and attempting to flee the country.
At the political prison camps, living conditions are reported to be barely habitable. In Yodok camp, for instance, detainees and prison guards report that extreme hunger causes inmates to resort to eating snakes or rats. Sanitation is poor and prisoners do not change their clothes during their incarceration and are rarely able to bathe or wash their clothing. One toilet is reportedly shared by 200 prisoners, no blankets are available in the winter, and public executions are carried out in front of prisoners, including executions of family members. Yet North Korean representatives have told the UN Human Rights Council that public executions are carried out to punish “very brutal violent crimes” and used only “in very exceptional cases.”
North Korea’s practices provide the clearest example of how the death penalty may be used for political ends. With no respect for the rule of law, no independent judiciary, and no respect for fundamental human rights, the current regime is unlikely to reform its use of the death penalty in the near future.
-- Jee Won Oh and Sandra Babcock