According to one of South Korea’s largest newspapers, JoongAng Ilbo, the Pyongyang regime executed 80 North Korean citizens in one day, for crimes including watching smuggled videos or owning a Bible.
The report is shocking, and nearly impossible to verify. Some experts are skeptical, but a number of North Korea watchers tell me it is completely consistent with other information and quite credible.
If true, the multiple executions by squads of soldiers with machine guns — reportedly carried out before large crowds of frightened spectators — were likely meant to send a strong message to the population: Anyone thinking of breaking the rules, any rules, will pay a heavy price. And it is a sign of the triple-threat faced by the regime of the young Kim Jung Un: the infiltration of information from abroad, the growth of religious groups and the expansion of underground free markets.
The newspaper says it heard the story from someone knowledgeable about North Korean internal affairs, who just returned from the North. That individual, the report said, spoke with multiple witnesses who say the events took place on Nov. 3, simultaneously in seven different cities.
The details of the event are even more horrifying. In one case, according to the paper, witnesses said authorities ushered about 10,000 residents, including children, into Shinpoong Stadium in the city of Wosan, in Kangwon province. Kangwon lies right on the border with South Korea, the area most susceptible to receiving contraband and information from the outside.
There, the crowds watched eight men tied to stakes with their heads covered by white sacks, falling to the ground after the soldiers opened fire. The method of execution is consistent with other occurrences that have been documented by activists secretly armed with cameras.
Relatives of those allegedly killed earlier this month were reportedly sent to prison camps, a practice that is also well-documented.
Harsh penalties, including executions, are not exactly rare in North Korea, but executing 80 people in one day, in public, is a noteworthy change of pace even for the brutal regime.
Kim Jong Un is about to mark two years since he came to power following the death of his father. Since then, he has moved to strengthen his position.
Any hopes that the Western-educated Kim would start moving away from the practices of his father and his grandfather — which have brought starvation, poverty and despair to the North Korean people — faded quickly after he became the country’s supreme leader.
Instead, the younger Kim has sought to consolidate power by threatening South Korea, threatening the United States and intensifying repression at home.
The new leader has walked so close to the edge of war that he has created worries about triggering an accidental conflict. Last April, the regime issued a warning to foreigners in South Korea, telling them they should leave the peninsula because it was on the brink of nuclear war.
According to the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, there is strong evidence that North Korea has restarted its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which can produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.
Human-rights groups say tens of thousands may have died in one of the largest prisons. By some estimates, at least 130,000 North Koreans, perhaps many more considered disloyal, are held in the system of penal colonies.
And reports of executions, which are extremely difficult to verify, keep coming from the secretive state.
Whatever the truth about Nov. 3 — whether the North Korean government publicly executed 80 people that day — there is no question that Kim Jong Un’s rule remains unpredictably dangerous to the world, and unspeakably cruel to his own people.