The death penalty in North Korea: in the machinery of a totalitarian State

In a report published today, ’’The death penalty in North Korea: in the machinery of a totalitarian State’’, FIDH denounces the nature and scale of executions in North Korea. The report concludes that the death penalty remains, in North Korea, an essential part of the totalitarian system in place. Due to the lack of access to North Korea for independent human rights organizations to enter North Korea, and the difficulty to obtain any data from authorities, FIDH sent a fact-finding mission to Seoul in December 2012 to collect first-hand testimonies from a total of 12 North Korean asylum seekers.

In the 90’s, during the great famine, the regime extensively used the death penalty in order to maintain order through force and terror and thus dissuade any subversive act, including attempts to flee abroad. Over a thousand public executions would have been carried out in only a few years. Since then, the government has continued to use the death penalty on a large-scale as a repressive tool, executing individuals guilty of so-called “economical crimes”, “treason” or other crimes vaguely defined, basically applying capital punishment for anyone considered as disturbing public order.

In North Korea, insignificant acts, which according to the regime affect the State’s legitimacy or ideology, including the cult of personality for the country’s leaders, can lead you to a firing squad, declared Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH President.


One of the persons FIDH met with witnessed the execution of a man in his thirties by firing squad in 2003. The latter was accused of cutting electric wires to sell them. The witness was told to attend the execution by the Party secretary working in his factory, in order to dissuade other workers from stealing electric wire. It happened in the South P’yŏng’an province, Sunchŏn city.

Kim Jong-un’s coming to power at the beginning of 2012 did nothing to change the situation. On the contrary, two decrees, adopted in September, increased the number of offenses carrying the death penalty. They are respectively used to condemn to death anyone found guilty of trafficking foreign currencies or of revealing classified information.

FIDH’s report stresses that the death penalty in North Korea is not only applied for crimes considered as non-serious under international law, but also in clear denial of the right to a fair trial. Charges are usually fabricated and sentences follow staged trials, if any trial at all. Public executions, which represent an extreme form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, are widespread. Moreover, the borderline between executions resulting from the death penalty and “extrajudicial” executions is close to nonexistent.


Another person witnessed a women executed in a stadium in 2006 for human trafficking and smuggling. Later, the same person saw the execution of a man who had stolen a cow to feed his family. He was publicly executed by firing squad in the market place.

All states that apply the death penalty are characterized by various forms of arbitrary, illegitimate, and illegal application. However, only in North Korea are all of these found in every executions, said Speedy Rice, professor at Washington & Lee University School of Law, and who took part in FIDH mission.

FIDH hopes that the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on the situation of human rights in North Korea, whose members were nominated on May 7th, will shed light on the application of the death penalty and exhort the international community to place the issue of human rights at the heart of its interactions with North Korea.

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