More Executions

July 13, 2015 7:00 AM

Last week, Marc Noland provided an overview of the data we have on executions in North Korea; here I continue on the subject, differentiating among three types of executions: higher-level purges; public executions, which may or may not have fallen off; and what I call "managerial" executions and their possible effect on the flow of defectors.

In an analysis oblogf the succession with Jaesung Ryu and Luke Herman, we argued that purges—including those that end in the death of the “purgee”—are anticipated aspects of succession in personalist dictatorships. Lines of loyalty to the successor are necessarily fragile and uncertain. Those regents installed around Kim Jong Un by his father necessarily reduced his discretion and could even pose an outright challenge to his rule, as the indictment of Jang Song Thank suggested. Estimates vary but the numbers certainly exceed the Amnesty International figures cited by Marc Noland in his post. South Korean intelligence has estimated that North Korea executed three state officials in 2012, 30 in 2013, 31 in 2014 and 8 so far this year. But The Diplomat's estimate of 50 such executions in 2014 is not implausible if we include both high-ranking and mid-tier officials.The latest in this wave: Hyon Yong Chol.

KINU's indispensible annual White Paper on human rights in North Korea (2014) is now out and Marc Noland's post noted the headline number of over 1300 public executions since 2000, a particularly gruesome and degrading human rights absue. As we noted in Witness to Transformation, the range of capital offenses in North Korea keeps expanding. The 2007 Addendum to the Penal Code (General Crimes) added a host of such offenses—a total of 16—typically vaguely worded; of particular interest was the addition of drug trafficking and a lengthy proclamation in 2009 on use of foreign currency that allowed for the death penalty (see pp. 100 ff. of the KINU report on these measures).

Have such executions been declining? KINU estimates that 534 people had been publicly executed between 2007-2013 for a range of crimes, from murder and rape to those added to the penal code: selling South Korean videos, assisting refugee exit and—perhaps most interestingly—for murders of internal security agents, the first time we had seen reference to such crimes (committed in 2011 and 2013). The largest increase in these executions in recent years was for drugs.

The report does note a decline in such executions in 2012-13: 68 in 2007; 107 in 2008; 137 in 2009; 86 in 2010; 109 in 2011; and then a fall to only 18 in 2012 and 9 in 2013.But KINU appears to be quite cautious in reporting, noting carefully whether the execution in question was witnessed or only reported. The decline could reflect the fact that the flow of refugees out of the country has slowed, meaning information on such executions is limited.

Finally there is the persistence of a form of execution with disturbing implications for government efficiency and the scapegoating of managers. Kim Jong Un apparently didn’t believe that the design of one of Pyongyang’s new airline terminals was sufficiently Korean (NKNews here). Ma Won-chun, director of the project, was apparently executed for “corrupt practices and failure to follow orders.” But in an even stranger case, we have the manager of a terrapin farm. As we noted in a Not Satire post, he was upbraided for not diversifying into lobster farming in anticipation of the 70th anniversary of the KWP. There are now reports that the hapless manager was executed.

The effects of this strategy are utterly predictable: that managers will do everything in their power to fly beneath the radar and not take risks.  But of greater long-run interest is the prospect that those in sensitive positions would defect. In an excellent summary of the South Korean reporting on a recent wave of such defections, NKNews (paywall) provides links to all of the recent stories and tries to sort out the numbers. NK News estimates that about 10 mid- to high-ranking officials, including members of Office 39, have recently defected. NKNews rightly dampens hopeful speculation that this is the beginning of the end. But the exit of officials can't be good for the regime, particularly if carrying intelligence on its funding strategies.


Mike Bassett

I offer a plausible explanation for the purges. What if Kim Jong-un's reforms are considered "anti-State" by Old Party Hardliners, and Kim Jong-un is merely executing his way to reforms?

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