SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – On a bleached and scratchy video image smuggled out of Kim Jong Il’s closed regime, blindfolded prisoners are tied to white posts on a rocky landscape, shot three times, and dragged away. The rare video footage of summary executions in North Korea – a practice considered routine in the North but never captured on film – was taken by hidden camera March 1 and 2, and smuggled through China to South Korea.
At the time, refugee groups in Seoul were ecstatic. It looked like a human rights slam-dunk: Refugees from the North have long described summary executions – public spectacles where prisoners are shot moments after a death sentence is proclaimed. The shootings are a form of social control via terror, experts say.
Yet in a twist not anticipated by underground groups that carried off the filming, South Korean TV authorities have not let the video be broadcast. The tape has been aired worldwide; Japan recently aired three exhaustive reports.
But due to intense though indirect pressure by Seoul officials, the North Korean execution tapes, purportedly of “middlemen” who help refugees escape to China, are not yet available for viewing by Koreans in the South. The indirect censure adds to frustration among those documenting the gulags and torture in the North. They charge indifference in the South to evidence of manifold suffering by ethnic siblings across the demilitarized zone.
It also raises anew questions about a five-year policy in Seoul of studiously avoiding acts that might upset Pyongyang, for fear of harming fragile North-South relations. South Korea’s ambivalence about a get-tough policy with North Korea may also factor into the mechanics of the six-party talks over the North’s recently declared nuclear program.
“We have told of many public executions [in the North]. But officials in Seoul always ask us for material evidence,” says Pak Sang Huk, an escapee from the North. “Now that we have evidence, they don’t want to see it…. The people who brought this tape through China were speechless when they visited KBS [Korean Broadcast Service] studios, and were shunned.” Mr. Pak claims those who filmed the executions risked their lives to do so.
Seoul’s effort to avoid broadcasts of negative images or facts about North Korea is part of a larger strategy dating to the Sunshine Policy and Korean summit of 2000. In this view, unification of North and South can’t be achieved if the South criticizes or acts in a manner that the North deems hostile.
“Kim Jong Il holds public executions to show the Kim family is omnipotent,” says Jae Jin Suh of the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. “It is naive to think that Pyongyang will respond to a push by Seoul to change and treat its people better. We need to focus on what is effective, not what we think we should say.”
Of late, the South has stopped raising the North’s abuses in international bodies. In 2003, South Korea withdrew from a UN Geneva process when it required a vote on North Korea’s human rights record. In 2004, Seoul abstained from voting. A new South Korean defense white paper released this month after a three-year delay, deletes a former reference to the North Korean Army as the “main threat.”
Critics say that to stifle or disallow comment about the unpredictable Kim leaves the South in the position of being influenced or governed by Kim’s own whims. Supporters of Sunshine say that patience is needed, and a return to hostile accusations could create a standoff that would slow foreign investment in the South. Critics say millions are suffering now.
The taped executions took place near Hoeryang, along the Chinese border. South Korean intelligence officers have told Western reporters the tape is far too detailed to be a fake. Yet officially the tape’s authenticity is “still under investigation.”
North Korean refugees claim that an underground group called Youth League for Freedom shot the tape, which records about 104 minutes over two days.
The camera is held at mid-body and initial images are of a rush of dark winter coats, a thronging crowd, police officers pushing people into line. Some 1,500 persons appear scattered around a rocky ravine. At one point, a white “propaganda truck” pulls up and over a megaphone one hears a charge read out. The accused are described as prostitute traffickers. (Sources insist the executed were helping Koreans escape the North.)
In due course, white posts are hammered into the ground. Then two men are escorted from a tent. Their arms are tied to the post. People stand on top of bicycles to see. A woman is heard to say, “I can’t watch this.” A police chief’s voice calls out, “Aim, fire, fire, fire.” Nine shots by three soldiers ring out from behind the prisoners, who instantly fall. An official with a megaphone can be heard saying, “How pathetic is the end of these traitors of the fatherland.”
Such footage is rare, coming from one of the world’s most closed states. Since 1956, North Korea has been sorted into a hierarchy of those with greater or lesser adoration for the ruling Kim family. At the top is a “core class” of supporters, followed by a “wavering class” whose loyalty is questioned, and a “hostile class” that are outcast. The Kim family “recognizes only a part of the population,” notes Stephen Bradner, a veteran US adviser in Seoul. “The rest are considered disposable.”
Evidence of a system of gulags where hundreds of thousands of the hostile class live has been confirmed by satellite imagery. From 1995 to 1999, between 1 and 3 million starved to death. Detailed knowledge of the North is difficult to obtain.
Nearly half the geographical area is off limits. Distrust of foreigners is profound. A fifth of the population are alleged to be informers, and a half dozen security agencies compete with each other to quash dissent, say US sources.
What the tape shows, apart from punishment seemingly in excess of the alleged crime, is that the accused have no lawyer, are not allowed to speak, and have no appeal, says Abraham Lee, a human rights lawyer in Seoul who also heads Refuge Pnan, which offers sanctuary for refugees.
US and Japanese sources describe a practice of stuffing rocks in the mouths of the accused – making them unable to shout out last words against the regime.
Many activists express dismay at a disinterest in the fate of fellow Koreans. Gyeng-seob Oh, who runs the newsletter NKnet, says, “When I first saw the footage, I thought it would be front-page news. But South Korea, the most important market for this information, was not interested.”
The only public airing of the tape in Korea came March 25 in a basement room of the Seoul National Assembly Library. One refugee testified that Pyongyang had in recent years declared that executions should be kept indoors. A large public outdoor gathering suggests that a crackdown may be under way, experts mused.
Another refugee plaintively asked the group what South Koreans will say to North Koreans “once North Korea is liberated. “What will we say when they ask us, ‘What did you do to help?’ ”