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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

FIDH on the Death Penalty in North Korea

by | May 24th, 2013 | 07:00 am
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As the Commission of Inquiry swings into gear, those with an interest in human rights in North Korea are asking the difficult question of how to guarantee it has some meaningful effect. Are there issues on which the outside world could actually engage the regime? The prison camp system is emerging as one focal point. Another could be the death penalty. In a wide-ranging report issued last week, the International Federation for Human Rights (operating under its French acronym FIDH) examines the issue, drawing on refugee testimony collected in the South.

The international law on the death penalty is sadly tenuous. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and subsequent General Comment Number 6 on it upholds a right to life, but accommodates the continuing state preference for the death penalty:

“1. Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life. 2. In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes [...]. This penalty can only be carried out pursuant to a final judgment rendered by a competent court. [...]. 5. Sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age and shall not be carried out on pregnant women. 6. Nothing in this article shall be invoked to delay or to prevent the abolition of capital punishment by any State Party to the present Covenant”.

The General Assembly has passed several resolutions calling for a moratorium. A  Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR was passed in 1989, emphasizing the importance of abolishing the death penalty, and strictly adhering to valid and fair legal processes where it is retained. At present, however, 58 countries in the world retain the death penalty, although only 21 countries carried out executions in 2012; South Korea falls among the states that retain the death penalty on the books but have not executed recently (see Death Penalty Worldwide. There are roughly 60 inmates on death row in the South Korea, although no one has been executed since 1997; we won’t even talk about the US).

That North Korea maintains the death penalty goes without saying. The regime went so far as to attempt to withdraw from the ICCPR in 1997 to assure that its hands would not be tied. The report provides interesting detail on the evolution of domestic law, which as we noted in Witness to Transformation and in a piece in Political Science Quarterly is becoming more, rather than less expansive in its definition of capital offenses. The report provides chapter and verse of “reforms” in the penal code as well as special measures that have been added to the legal code by the security apparatus. For example, in September 2012 the security apparatus issued two public decrees called “circulation of forex punishable by execution” (Department of People’s Security) and “execution by firing squad for divulging classified information via cell phone” (State Security Department). At present, the total number of crimes that carry the death penalty in the country stands at 24. The full list is appended below, and the language surrounding them tends to be incredibly broad and permissive.

Estimates of the number of executions is difficult if not impossible to get, but the report pulls together various efforts. They are lower than one might expect; 3000 since 1948 according to the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB). But these estimates should be taken with a grain of salt. First, the pervasive control exercised by the regime partly mitigates the need to kill people outright. Second, these estimates overlook the effective death sentence associated with conditions in the prison camps and secret executions, not to mention the effects of deprivation associated with the regime’s economic policies. Third, the cases that come to light are often of purged officials; the average citizen doesn’t merit mention except through refugee testimony.

That said, the trends still appear to be going in the wrong direction. Executions trended up during the arduous march as the government struggled to control the population.  The expansion of the market has resulted in a wider variety of economic crimes carrying the death penalty. Moreover, the regime engages in the shameful practice of public executions; a number of the refugees contacted by the fact-finding mission recall witnessing public executions and a number stated that children were dragged to public executions at school.

Kudos to the FIDH for this effort. There is so much to do with respect to human rights in North Korea. But if we want to start with the most egregious abuses, the prison camps and the death penalty provide a natural focus.

List of crimes punishable with the death penalty in the DPRK

 Criminal Procedure Law (last revised in 2007)

 Article 60 – Plots against National Sovereignty: “In cases of extremely grave offenses, he or she shall be committed to lifetime reform through labor or subjected to death penalty” (discretionary)

Article 61 – Terrorism: “In cases of extremely grave offenses, he or she shall be committed to lifetime reform through labor or subjected to death penalty and confiscation of his or her property.” (discretionary)

Article 63 – Treason: “In cases of extremely grave offenses, he or she shall be committed to lifetime reform through labor or subjected to death penalty and confiscation of his or her property.” (discretionary)

Article 64 – Damage or destruction: “In cases of extremely grave offenses, he or she shall be committed to lifetime reform through labor or subjected to death penalty and confiscation of his or her property.” (discretionary)

Article 68 – Perfidy against the People: “In cases of extremely grave offenses, he or she shall be committed to lifetime reform through labor or subjected to death penalty and confiscation of his or her property.” (discretionary)

Article 266 – Intentional murder. While this article does not specifically include the death penalty, it specifies a minimum sentence of 10 year hard labour, with the assumption that the absence of upper limit leaves open the use of capital punishment. (discretionary)

2007 addendum to the Criminal Code for ordinary crimes

 Disrupting Preparations for War: Article 1 – Extremely grave crime of deliberate damage or destruction of resources reserved for purposes of combat and military facilities. (mandatory)

Theft of Government or Public Property:
Article 2 & 3 – Extremely grave crime of seizing state property (mandatory)

Article 4 – Extremely grave crime of the deliberate damage or destruction of state property (mandatory)

Violating Socialist Economic Order: 
Article 5 – Extremely grave crime of currency counterfeiting. (mandatory)

Article 6 – Extremely grave crime of smuggling and introducing jewels and colored metal onto the black market. (mandatory)

Article 8 – Crime of illicitly selling the State’s resources. (discretionary)

Violating Socialist Culture:

Article 11 – Extremely grave crime of smuggling and introducing narcotics onto the black market. (mandatory)

Article 17 – Extraordinarily grave act of delinquency. (discretionary) Article 18 – Crime of illegal business operations. (discretionary)

Article 19 – Extremely grave crime of deliberately inflicting aggravated bodily injuries.(discretionary)

Article 20 – Extremely grave crime of kidnapping. (mandatory)

Article 21 – Extraordinarily grave crime of rape. (discretionary)

Article 22 – Extremely grave crime of theft of private property. (mandatory)

Article 14 – Extraordinarily grave crime of escape from prison. (discretionary)

Article 23 – Crimes punishable by lifetime reform through labor or death penalty in exceptional circumstances. (discretionary)

Public decrees of September 2012

“Circulation of forex punishable by execution” (by the Department of People’s Security)

“Execution by gun squad for divulging classified information via cell phone” (by the State Security Department).