North Korea: ‘Death by firing squad’ warnings exposed amid Kim Jong-un purge fears

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North Korea continues to fascinate many around the world due to its extreme secrecy and withdrawal from much of the outside world. Recently, amid continuous speculation over Kim Jong-un’s alleged ill health, a new concern has arisen from the hermit state. It’s claimed that the life of Kim Yo-jong, the ruler’s sister, may be under threat after she vanished from public view at the end of July. Prior to this, she made a number of aggressive statements on behalf of the nation, including branding South Koreans “human scum” and “mongrel dogs”. An individual speaking on behalf of the Supreme Leader is uncharacteristic and interpreted as a sign that she is his second in command. In the past, any sign of dissidence has been met with execution. At least 10 officials are believed to have been purged under the orders of Kim Jong-un, including his uncle Jang Song-thaek. This kind of brutality is far from unusual in North Korea and in the past has been leveraged against the public for an array of offences. 

Defector Jang Jin-sung detailed some of the barbaric acts carried out against citizens in his 2014 memoir ‘Dear Leader’ – most notably the execution of a man who was starving to death. 

He worked for the government’s propaganda department, where he wrote poems to support the regime and then-ruler Kim Jong-il, until he fled in 2004 because he feared for his life. 

The writer disclosed the staggering differences between Pyonygang, the nation’s capital, and areas outside – where famine is heightened. 

He recalled heartbreaking conversations with his childhood friend Young-Nam after he returned to his home city of Sariwon.

Pyongyang is known to be the nation’s “poster city”, used to showcase the regime’s success to foreign visitors and officials. 

It is the only location outsiders are permitted to visit – and it is believed that famine plagues the regions outside the capital. 

Jin-sung’s friend told him: “Scrambling for the next meal is the best I can do. Even if I make it today, there’s the next meal to worry about. And the next. 

“All my waking hours are spent fearing whether I will be able to eat again. We live no better than animals.”

Instead of signs that showed the prices of goods in the city’s marketplace, there were a number of “black-lettered slogans”. 

They read: “Death by firing squad to those who disobey traffic rules! Death by firing squad to those who hoard food! Death by firing squad to those who gossip!”

Other ‘crimes’ punishable by this brutal method included hoarding state resources, spreading foreign culture, cutting military communication lines and wasting electricity.

Jin-sung commented: “The slogans implied that any and every mistake would lead to death by firing squad.”

Later he witnessed one of the public executions first-hand after the noise of a siren rang through the air – an event that would lead to the closure of the market until the killing had taken place. 

He continued: “In North Korea, a public execution is not regarded as a punishment. It is categorised as a method of moral education, and also as a tool of public propaganda used in power struggles.

“These executions took place almost on a weekly basis. They always happened in the market square so that a large audience could watch the proceedings.”

Soldiers dragged a man in everyday clothes out from the crowd for a “People’s Trial” – where a member of the military would read the individual’s crime and then shoot them. 

Jin-sung wrote: “It felt like a deliberate message to the townsfolk, that any of them could be in his position; that it didn’t take a special criminal to suffer this fate. 

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“The man’s eyes were full of terror as he scanned the scene around him from beneath his sagging eyelids and bony sockets. There was blood around his lips.”

His crime was “the theft of one sack of rice” – which under law at the time belonged to the nation’s military – and the man was shot dead. 

Jin-sung added: “As soon as the judge pronounced his sentence, one of the two soldiers who was restraining the prisoner shoved something into his mouth in a swift, practised motion.

“It was a V-shaped spring that expanded once it was put inside the mouth, preventing the prisoner from speaking intelligibly. The prisoner made sounds but there was no human noise, only whimpering. 

“This device had been officially sanctioned for use at public executions so that a prisoner could not utter rebellious sentiments in the final moments of his life before it was taken from him.”

Soon after the killing – which Jin-sung said left the “blood frozen in his veins” and unable to watch the prisoner’s final moments of life – he discovered the man’s occupation. 

He continued: “The shock I felt after learning the story is hard to describe… my hair stood on end and a tingling chill reached from there to the ends of my toes. 

“The man riddled with bullets for stealing rice had been a starving farmer. Even someone who worked for the land could not find enough to eat.”

‘Dear Leader’ was written by Jang Jin-sung and published by Edbury Publishing in 2014. It is available here.

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