Knowing Where the Bodies Are Buried

Marcus Noland (PIIE)



The 2014 publication of the UN Commission of Inquiry report concluded that crimes against humanity were being perpetrated in North Korea and contributed to the establishment of the South Korean government’s Center for North Korean Human Rights Records and the UN Human Rights Office in Seoul.

The latest manifestation of the COI’s influence is the publication of the report “Mapping Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea” by the Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group. This organization was established in 2014 and receives support from the US National Endowment for Democracy. The report represents the continuation of a line of research using satellite photography to document North Korean human rights abuses that began in 2003 with David Hawk’s  pathbreaking “The Hidden Gulag,” commissioned by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (full disclosure I sit on the HRNK board).

What the TJWG researchers have done is interview 375 North Korean refugees and on the basis of their testimonies constructed a map identifying killing and burial sites. It’s an ongoing project, so the results are preliminary and incomplete, but the authors argue that getting the material into the public domain will induce additional testimonies and thus contribute to a more comprehensive record. The results are quite extraordinary, though they really do represent a rough first draft.

The sample of witnesses is not random—the participants were identified through the cascade approach of asking an initial group to suggest other potential participants. In certain respects, this is not a problem, since the purpose of the project is to document sites. It is a problem if these results are interpreted in relative rather than absolute terms. So, for example, a majority of the interviewees are from North Hamgyong province, which has been the largest “sending” province of refugees to South Korea for many years. It is also a province that was a kind of dumping ground for politically disfavored households, and a province that fared relatively poorly during the famine. Not surprisingly then, most of the killing and burial sites identified in the TJWG report are in North Hamgyong. This is not a problem if one is simply trying to document the existence of such sites; it is a problem if one then draws the inference from this evidence that repression has been most intense North Hamgyong. Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t. What “Mapping Crimes Against Humanity” establishes is a lot of death occurred there.  Likewise, most of the respondents exited North Korea between 2004 and 2011, so their testimonies will emphasize conditions prevailing during particular eras.

The way that the sites are identified is through interviews where the credibility of the testimony is scored on a scale from direct observation of alleged events by the witness to rumors and guesses. How to score the degree of credibility is a judgement call of the interviewer. But what is problematic about the report is that there does not appear to have been a thorough consolidation of the testimonies so that one could conclude that on the basis of direct observation by multiple witnesses that site X has a high confidence of being a say mass burial site, while site Y which was identified by a single witness on the basis of a rumor as a mass execution location has a much lower degree of confidence. Insofar as the TJWG wants their work to be used in actual transitional justice, prioritization on the degree of assessment confidence is critical and appears to be a task that remains to be completed.

The types of sites documented are mainly killing and burial sites. Three burial sites fall into three broad categories: burial sites associated with the prison system; burial sites associated with the famine; and burial sites associated with deaths while in police custody. Some of the details provided in the interviews are truly appalling. The killing sites are somewhat more disparate, some associated with detention facilities where prisoners were either formally executed (normally in front of other prisoners) or informally killed to intimidate the prison population and encourage discipline. Outside the prison system other killing sites include places of execution for people accused of capital crimes or political offenses. 

In their reporting the TJWG divides these sites into “sensitive” and “non-sensitive” sites for the purposes of providing public detail depending on the expected likelihood that the North Korean regime would attempt to disguise or tamper with a site if knowledge of its existence is revealed. Non-sensitive sites typically would be places like known police stations, government offices, and detention facilities.

In keeping with their long-term commitment to transitional justice, the TJWG also asked their interviewees about how they think these issues should be handled in a future transition. Perhaps unsurprisingly the respondents place a high value on exhuming burial sites, even if it delays economic development, punishing perpetrators, and compensating victims’ families financially.

In short, “Mapping Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea” is a valuable first draft of a long-term project to document North Korean human rights abuses with an eye toward establishing an evidentiary baseline in a future transitional justice scenario. I look forward to the next iteration.

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