Chapter 5 focuses on South Korea (population 49 million) instead of North Korea (population 23 million) for two main reasons: because economic and political development in the South make it a more instructive case for understanding the present and future of capital punishment in other Asian societies than would an analysis of the “horrible weirdness” in North Korea, and because reliable information about state killing in North Korea—a country that has been called a “hermit kingdom” and a “kingdom of lies”—is hard to come by (Cumings 1997:433; Gourevitch 2003:57,64). Our accounts of capital punishment in China (chapter 7) and Vietnam (appendix C) describe some of the death penalty data problems in those countries, but “in North Korea perhaps more than anywhere else, the effects of Communism are difficult to translate into numbers,” making it impossible to provide a precise picture of the country or the realities of capital punishment there (Rigoulot 1999:546,563). Nonetheless, the available evidence does support at least nine general statements about the death penalty during the dynasty of Kim Il Sung, the “Great Leader” who ruled the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) from the time it declared independence in 1948 until his death in 1994, and of his son and successor Kim Jong Il, the “Dear Leader” and “Lodestar of the 21st Century” who has wielded power since.
First, North Korean authorities “maintain that the last execution took place in 1992” (Hood and Hoyle 2008:96), but there is considerable evidence that executions continue to occur on a regular basis and at high but unknown rates (Kang and Rigoulot 2001:137; Gourevitch 2003:60; Becker 2005:37; Martin 2006:290). (p.360) Executions were suspended for one month after Kim Il Sung died in July 1994, but it seems his son soon wanted to “hear the sound of gunshots again,” and in January 1995 he reportedly issued orders demanding the execution of all criminals within three months (Becker 2005:98). For a time there were “executions every day by stoning or hanging ‘criminals’ who had stolen two pounds of maize or a couple of eggs,” and a refugee interviewed in Bangkok said he saw 28 “criminals” executed in one day (98). During the food shortages and famines of the 1990s, resistance to the regime increased, with protests, strikes, local uprisings, and even the killing of some officials and their families. Kim Jong Il responded with more terror, including “waves of purges and a countrywide pattern of summary public trials and executions” (36). Some refugees told of watching prisoners who were “garroted or hung or tied to a stake and their relatives forced to light the fire” (37), and one inmate who escaped from a labor camp told Doctors Without Borders that he personally witnessed more than 1,000 executions (37).
Similar execution patterns have characterized North Korea for the last 60 years. Kang Koo Chin, a specialist on North Korea's legal system, has estimated that in 1958–1960 at least 9,000 people were ejected from the Communist Party, tried, and sentenced to death. In the late 1990s, a French scholar extrapolated from this estimate “to include the other nine purges of a similar scale,” arriving at a figure of 90,000 to 100,000 executions over a 40‐year period, a Mao‐like rate of more than 100 executions per million per year (Rigoulot 1999:552,564; Becker 2005:62). This is only the number of people executed in party purges (not ordinary criminal cases) and does not include the estimated 1.5 million deaths in concentration camps, many of which resulted from an excruciating process of “slow capital punishment” whereby inmates deemed no longer productive or useful were worked and starved to death (Rigoulot 1999:564; Becker 2005:36,94).
The second North Korean death penalty reality is the regime's claim (in its 2001 report to the UN Human Rights Committee) that it had reduced the number of capital offenses from 33 to 5. The remaining offenses were said to be conspiracy against state power, treason, terrorism, antinational treachery, and intentional murder. According to the UN, four of these capital crimes are “essentially political” and are “couched in terms so broad that the imposition of the death penalty may be subject to essentially subjective criteria, and not confined to the ‘most high crimes’ only” (Hands Off Cain, May 31, 2006). The crimes on this short list are highly elastic. Since all property in the DPRK belongs to the state, anyone found “stealing” corn from a field, chopping down a tree, or killing a cow without authorization is guilty of a crime against the state (Becker 2005:37). At the same time, there is substantial evidence that North Korea continues to execute people for crimes not on this short list, including theft, smuggling, and other nonviolent offenses (Amnesty International 2005b).
What is striking about these first two facts is not only the high execution volume for a wide variety of offenses but also the fact that a “rogue regime” (p.361) that frequently defies international norms in other areas—diplomacy, trade, terrorism, nuclear weapons, narcotics, and human rights—apparently feels the need to tell the world that it is a decent state when it comes to capital punishment. This is a window onto the symbolic importance of death penalty policy even in “the most closed state in the world” and even though its claims about capital punishment reform have been thoroughly discredited (Rigoulot 1999:547). It is also a testament to the power of international human rights norms and the “logic of appropriateness” to shape the death penalty sensibilities of political leaders in repressive regimes (Bae 2007:126).
Third, “uncounted critics” of the North Korean regime have been executed since Kim Il Sung became paramount leader in the 1940s (Cumings 1997:407; Martin 2006:290). Some observers believe North Korea's purge of politically disloyal subjects is even “more brutal than the Chinese Cultural Revolution” (Martin 2006:293), while others contend that North Korea has been “more discriminating” in its use of violence for political ends than were the dictators in South Korea (Cumings 1997:231). Whatever the historical reality—and the most comprehensive account of “death by government” concludes that Kim Il Sung's regime killed twice the percentage of his country's population than Mao did of his (Rummel 1994:4)—the present reality is that Kim Jong Il continues to execute political and personal enemies. Dozens if not hundreds of military officers have been executed, including at least ten who were shot for opposing Kim's succession (Becker 2005:197). Kim also had one of his mistresses—an actress born in Japan—executed for being unfaithful; she was shot before a crowd of 5,000 shouting “kill, kill” (135). One of Kim's former bodyguards claims the dictator had his barber shot for botching his bouffant hairdo (142). These political, personal, and capricious motivations for killing resemble no one so much as Mao Zedong. They also distinguish state killing in North Korea from state killing in present‐day China and Vietnam—Asia's other large communist countries—where capital punishment is no longer directed at explicitly political targets except in isolated cases.
Fourth, North Korean authorities often use torture to extract confessions, and many persons have been executed without receiving the benefit of a criminal trial, much less due process (Ichikawa 2006; Martin 2006:302). North Korea's justice system exists mainly to promote the interests of the regime. “All judges and almost all lawyers act on the orders of the Party and are explicitly instructed to work along strict Marxist‐Leninist lines” (Rigoulot 1999:553). Some victims of “interrogation” are beaten with iron chains, rubber belts, and wooden sticks. Others are tied with ropes and then hanged upside down and electrocuted. One detainee was ordered to clean the toilet hole in his cell with his tongue for 30 minutes, and the same degradation ritual was inflicted on a fellow prisoner for five consecutive days as punishment for sleeping on his side instead of his back. Suspects and inmates who try to escape these barbarisms are sometimes executed. One would‐be escapee was killed by being dragged behind a car, and other prisoners were forced to “file past and place their hands on his bloodied corpse” (Becker 2005:94). Some of (p.362) North Korea's penal techniques—such as its underground torture chambers—were adopted and adapted from its Japanese occupiers, a form of learning that also occurred in the South. But unlike the present‐day South, little attention is paid to legal processes or protections. From the purges of party officials that followed the signing of the armistice in 1953 to the executions under Kim Jong Il, real trials—where evidence counts and guilt can be contested—have been a rarity. All too often, victims simply disappear and law is simply dispensed with—“no charges, no formal sentencing, no documents, and no appeals” (62).
Fifth, underpinning the North Korean state's elaborate apparatus of social control is “a principle of collective family responsibility that makes every member of a household accountable for the conduct of his immediate kin, so that the deviations of one are the calamity of all” (Gourevitch 2003:60). What matters in North Korea is not merely what you do but also what your family once was (Delisle 2005; Hoare and Pares 2005), and the belief that political deviance is hereditary extends to capital punishment (Kang and Rigoulot 2001). Pregnant women who have given birth in Korea after being repatriated from China have even had their babies killed because they were “tainted with foreign blood” (Becker 2005:95). Conversely, some criminal suspects escape punishment altogether because of their family backgrounds. According to a report by the South Korean Bar Association, the children of former activists who protested Japan's colonization of Korea often receive “automatic rulings of innocence” (Ichikawa 2006).
Sixth, executions have frequently been staged in public during the Kim dynasty and continue to be so staged in North Korea today even though the regime claims that public spectacles were ended in 2003 (Kang and Rigoulot 2001:137–144; Amnesty International 2005b; Martin 2006:290–304; Hood and Hoyle 2008:96). In March 2005, for example, a 104‐minute videotape of two public executions in the city of Hoeryang was smuggled out of North Korea (via China) into Seoul. It shows about 1,500 persons scattered around a rocky ravine watching two men (described as “prostitute traffickers”) get tied to white posts and shot from the rear by three soldiers, each of whom fires three times. Before the executions, a North Korean official with a megaphone reads the charges aloud, and afterward he can be heard saying “how pathetic is the end of these traitors of the fatherland” (quoted in Marquand 2005). Other public executions have been documented through interviews with North Korean defectors (Ichikawa 2006) and through Good Friend, a support organization for North Korea that has documented the public execution of offenders charged with selling videotapes or electric cables (Hands Off Cain, June 27, 2006). In October 2007, a factory boss in South Pyongon Province was reportedly executed by firing squad in front of a stadium crowd of 150,000; he was condemned for making international phone calls on 13 phones he had installed in a factory basement (Kwang‐Tae Kim 2007; “N. Korea Resumes” 2007). Kang Chol‐hwan, who was purged as a nine‐year‐old boy with the rest of his family and who spent ten years in North Korea's largest prison camp (p.363) (Yodok), says in his memoirs that he attended some 15 executions between 1977 and 1987. After one, “the two or three thousand prisoners in attendance were instructed to each pick up a stone and hurl it at the corpses while yelling, ‘Down with the traitors of the people!’” Kang says they “did as [they] were told” (Kang and Rigoulot 2001:14). An inmate released from another prison camp said authorities at his facility “would stage public executions fifteen or twenty times” each year (Martin 2006:299). Since there are approximately 20 prison camps in the North Korean gulag, there may be a public execution somewhere in the country almost every day. In some cases, people are not only summoned to watch, they are urged to participate through shouts of hatred, insults, and (as Kang's experiences suggest) kicking, beating, and stone‐throwing (Becker 2005:190).
Seventh, in addition to the execution of political prisoners and more run‐of‐the‐mill criminal offenders by shooting and hanging, between 100,000 and 300,000 persons are incarcerated in North Korea's gulag (Cumings 1997:398; Kang and Rigoulot 2001:xxiv). This gives a state whose crimes stand out as the most striking contemporary expression of “savage Communism” an estimated per capita imprisonment rate about equal to that in the United States (Rigoulot 1999). For those North Koreans who are placed in “hard‐labor zones,” the work is “conceived solely for the purpose of driving prisoners to their graves” (Kang and Rigoulot 2001:xi, 144), an agonizing species of slow execution (Becker 2005:36). According to the South Korean Bar Association, in North Korean prisons that accommodate political prisoners, “inmates are forced to work for between 12 and 15 hours a day, 361 days of the year” (Ichikawa 2006). Some analysts believe a million or more North Koreans may have died in these prisons under the two Kims, which would be an average of more than 15,000 deaths per year (Rigoulot 1999; Becker 2005).
Eighth, since the summit meeting in 2000 between Kim Jong Il, the “central brain” of North Korea, and South Korean president Kim Dae Jung, officials in Seoul have largely avoided drawing attention to human rights abuses in the North, seemingly out of fear of harming North‐South relations (Marquand 2005). Among South Korean citizens too, many people “have turned a blind eye” to the truth about North Korean concentration camps and capital punishment (Kang and Rigoulot 2001:viii). It is hard to tell if more international attention would have changed the North's death penalty policy, for the regime remains isolated, insulated, and incorrigible in many respects. But since international opinion has sometimes been an agent of positive death penalty change in Asia's other communist regimes—China and Vietnam especially—it is reasonable to wonder if more external attention to North Korea's state killing would have made a difference there too.
Finally, there seem to be many significant similarities between the death penalty practices of North Korea and those of China and Vietnam. In all three of these communist states one sees the use of execution targets and quotas, the orchestration of campaigns and crackdowns and the enlistment of mass participation in them, the centrality of the distinction between “friends” and (p.364) “enemies,” the treatment of law as a flexible instrument for achieving regime aims, a heavy reliance on confessions for evidence and the frequent use of “the third degree” for obtaining them, little in the way of legal protection or rights for criminal suspects and offenders, extreme secrecy about the death penalty (especially vis‐à‐vis foreign audiences), and the routine recourse in official rhetoric to “popular will” and “public support” for harsh punishment practices. There are differences too, of course. In North Korea, capital punishment continues to target political enemies to an extent no longer seen in China and Vietnam. But East Asia is almost the only place on earth where communists still rule, and if there is a specifically “Asian” brand of communism in this region, as some analysts argue (Margolin and Rigoulot 1999:636), there appears to be an identifiably Asian version of communist capital punishment as well.
As for the future of North Korea—the most militarized country in the world—and its possible effects elsewhere, some observers believe the real threat from Kim Jong Il's regime is not nuclear missiles but the prospect of its catastrophic collapse, which “could determine the balance of power in Asia for decades” to come (Kaplan 2006:64). If the North Korean regime does collapse—and experts have wrongly predicted it would for at least 35 years (Cumings 1997:433)—the case of German unification following the fall of the Berlin wall in 1990 suggests that criminal justice in the North would likely converge to the prevailing patterns in the South (Markovits 1995). Some analysts believe Kim Jong Il's regime is already dying “a natural death,” as “the last fifteen years have witnessed the gradual wearing away of North Korean Stalinism” (Lankov 2006). On the other hand, Bruce Cumings, one of the most astute students of Korean history, believes North Korea has always been “closer to a Neo‐Confucian kingdom than to Stalin's Russia,” and he argues that the Kim regime's skill at drawing deeply from “the well of Korean tradition and anticolonial nationalism” may well give it “staying power” for some time to come (1997:407,433). If that prediction proves prescient, the Korean peninsula will remain home to two of the most radically different death penalty systems in all of Asia. We do not think “culture” can explain that difference.