North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is not known for his mercy. Photo: AFP/Yuri Kadobnov

Hundreds and even thousands of North Koreans are required to attend open-air executions in locations that include market places, schools and sports grounds, but state agents take considerable pains to prevent these macabre events being recorded by the public with smartphones.

These were among the findings of a report published on Tuesday by a Seoul-based NGO, “Mapping the Fate of the Dead: Killings and Burials in North Korea,” which documents and maps locations associated with state-sanctioned killings inside the secretive and isolated state.

In the report, the Transitional Justice Working Group claims to have identified three types of sites: state-sanctioned killing sites, sites where the dead are disposed of and locations which may contain documents or other evidence related to the killings.

The report took four years to compile and is based on both satellite imagery and 610 interviews with people who escaped North Korea, the group said in a press release.  It includes details of 323 state-sanctioned killing grounds, complete with geographical coordinates.

“We intend to use the data to assist ongoing efforts internationally to pursue accountability for human rights abuses, and to support future activities focused on redress for the abuses carried out by [North Korea]” said TJWG Technology Director Dan Bielefeld, according to the press release.

Forced to watch

The report details 318 public execution sites, where most executions are carried out by firing squad. As the public are required to watch them, the killings take place in wide spaces – from open fields and river beds to market squares, school  premises and sports grounds.

However, state agencies use detection gear to ensure that citizens do not record the events on smartphones or digital cameras, the report said.

This suggests the state’s sensitivity to global public opinion. Concealed-camera footage from public executions has been leaked out of North Korea by Japan-based activist groups and has been seen by Asia Times.

Some 16% of the interviewees reported a family member being executed, while an astonishing 27% said family members had been victims of enforced disappearances by state authorities – with the vast majority of them still missing – the report found.

The TJWG discovered that 83% of interviewees had witnessed a public execution. The youngest person to view an execution among interviewees was seven years old at the time of the event.

The most commonly cited offenses for the death penalty in North Korea, the report found, are – in descending order – murder or attempted murder, stealing copper, human trafficking, stealing cows and other forms of property and economic crimes.

After executions, families are usually not given the deceased bodies of their loved ones.

“The inability to access information on the whereabouts of a family member killed by the state, and the impossibility of giving them a proper burial, violates both cultural norms and the right to know,’” said Sarah Son, the report’s lead author, according to the press release.

Founded in 2014, TJWG was founded by activists and researchers from five countries.

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