Crackdown on superstitious behavior leads to life sentence for unlucky fortune teller in North Korea

Residents of Pyongyang in Kim Il-Sung square participate in a show of support for Kim Jong-Un’s New Year’s message in January.
Residents of Pyongyang in Kim Il Sung square participate in a show of support for Kim Jong-Un’s New Year’s message in January. Image: Rodong Sinmun

Following reports of a public execution of a fortune teller in December last year in Chongjin, Daily NK has learned that another fortune-teller received a life sentence in Pyongsong in February this year. Until October 2018, those charged with engaging in superstitious behavior were typically sentenced to 1-2 months in a correctional labor camp, but the crime now carries severe penalties, including the possibility of execution.  

“In February, a woman who was living in Munhwa-dong, Pyongsong, was placed on public trial for fortune-telling. Many party executives, state security officials, and police officers went to see her during their business trips or mobilization activities. The authorities made an issue out of it and gave her a life sentence,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK.

North Korea’s penal code stipulates that a person who engages in superstitious behavior can receive a maximum of three years of correctional labor (Article 256). However, the lady in question received punishment grossly exceeding what the law stipulates.

A separate source in South Pyongan Province who corroborated the news said, “When an important order is handed down in North Korea, there is always a demonstration of that order and the fortune-teller was just unlucky.

“When the authorities decide to make an example out of someone, those with power can escape, but powerless people such as fortune-tellers are punished,” he explained, alluding to the fact that the party executives, state security officials, and police officers who visited her were not punished.

The “important order” referred to by the source is an order issued in December by Kim Jong Un, mandating strict punishment for superstitious behaviors. 

In North Korea, the supreme leader’s opinions often manifest as harsher punishments for those out of luck.

For example, in October last year, those who were arrested for superstitious behaviors in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, typically received two months of correctional labor work. However, in December of the same year, sentences for the same charge in Chongjin and Onsong in North Hamgyong Province included the death sentence and 18 years of correctional labor. And in February this year, the aforementioned fortune teller in Pyongsong received a life sentence.

It is thought that the reason behind the severe crackdown on superstitious behaviors is to prevent any distraction from idolization of the ruling Kim family.  

The North Korean regime has maintained its grip on power by keeping the population in a state of fear through the use of public trials against perceived anti-party, anti-state, anti-socialism and anti-socialist elements.  

According to the sources, members of major subsidiaries of the Worker’s Party such as the city’s Socialist Women’s Union of Korea, General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea and Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League participated in the public trial.

In July last year, the regime declared superstitious behavior as “an act that does not follow the party,” and “an act that deviates the party and public” and ordered that violators be “strictly punished” by the law. (Related article: North Korea cracks down on superstition… “Four people arrested for seeing fortune-teller”   

Workers’ Party subsidiaries such as the Socialist Women’s Union, Trade Union and Youth League serve to control and educate residents. The North Korean authorities appear to have an overall strategy of trying to increase cohesion and ideological thoughts within the population, while implementing measures to crack down on superstition and alternative modes of thought.  

*Translated by Yongmin Lee