Kim Jong Un continues to ignore rule of law in public execution of military officer

The Supreme Court of North Korea. Image: Yonhap News Agency

Article 6, Clause 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which North Korea signed in 1981, states that “[e]very human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”

Daily NK recently reported that North Korean authorities carried out a public trial at a meeting room in the April 25 House of Culture in Moranbong District, followed by the public execution of Hyon Ju Song, who had held the position of Director of the Inspection Division of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces General Rear Services Bureau (Lieutenant General of the People’s Army), at a firing range at the Kang Kon Military Academy located in Sunan District, Pyongyang.

The public execution was reportedly carried out on orders from Kim Jong Un, sidestepping procedures stipulated in North Korea’s own Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Act. The officer executed was put to a public trial after Kim had already personally signed off on his execution. In effect, this was in violation of North Korea’s own procedures related to criminal prosecution.

Clause 418 of North Korea’s Criminal Procedure Act states, “Punishments are carried out after a judgement has been made. Executions may only be carried out following permission given by the relevant agency.” In other words, the punishment for the crime should have been finalized after the trial for the execution to have been carried out. The North Korean authorities ignored these legal procedures.

North Koreans in general do not have access to lawyers for representation. It is highly likely that the relevant agency failed to inform the accused officer about the nature of the charges against him.

According to a research article written by North Korean researcher Yu Yong Tae entitled “The Realities Facing Lawyers in the Republic’s (DPRK’s) Criminal Justice System” (Research on Political Law, No. 1, 2006), “The activities of lawyers [in North Korea] not only focus on supporting the rights of the accused, but also support the work of the courts to ensure all criminal cases are handled in accordance with the demands of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP)’s policies and regulations and a basis in the law of the land.”

North Korean lawyers act to ensure that the charges against the accused match up with the KWP’s policies and thus are little more than prosecutors on the wrong side of the aisle. North Koreans are not allowed to choose their own lawyers, who are instead chosen by a preliminary judge or regular court judge. Lawyers for the defendants are generally disinclined to actually defend their clients at all during the course of a trial.

One defector who experienced the criminal justice system in North Korea told Daily NK on condition of anonymity that North Korean lawyers generally show up for three days at a trial and merely explain to the defendant the process they will be going through. “I was told to just answer “guilty” when the judge asks whether I pleaded guilty or not. It was ridiculous,” he said.

The officer was accused of “falsely reporting on the violence of nuclear weapons” and “making a decision independently about provisions.” The execution may have been an attempt, some say, to prevent any harm from coming to the prestige of the Supreme Leader through the idolization of anyone other than Kim Jong Un.

It is a crime in North Korea for anyone to subvert the authority of the regime. Eleven acts outlawed by the country, including “stealing important national assets” are subject to the death penalty as supplementary provisions of the Criminal Code.


*This article was amended on July 4, 2018 to correct a quote by North Korean researcher Yu Yong Tae.