North Korea: Citizens arrested and executed for watching foreign films as authorities wiretap communication and block defections
North Korea is one of the world’s most repressive states, where civic space is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. The government restricts all civil and political liberties for its citizens, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association and religion. It prohibits all organised political opposition, independent media, civil society and trade unions.
In August 2023, a former member of the Panel of Experts on U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea said that the UN Security Council remains "completely deadlocked" in imposing sanctions against Pyongyang's banned weapons programs, and criticised China and Russia for failing to remain impartial and vetoing sanctions. The panel is comprised of experts from the five permanent Security Council members -- Britain, France, China, Russia and the U.S. -- as well as South Korea and Japan, and monitors sanctions on North Korea.
There was an open discussion at the UN Security Council on human rights in North Korea on 17th August 2023. Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said: “Information collected by my Office indicates increasing repression of the rights to freedoms of expression, privacy and movement. Anyone who views so-called “reactionary ideology and culture” – a term used for information from abroad, in particular the Republic of Korea – may now face imprisonment of five to fifteen years. Any person found to have distributed such content faces life imprisonment or even the death penalty”.
He added: “A travel permit system enables the State to control all travel within the country. It imposes prison terms for up to three months, without trial and in a State labour camp, for violating travel orders. The Government's surveillance over its citizens, at home and abroad, has grown to an intensity rarely seen in other countries. People’s rights to privacy are systematically violated. Homes are subjected to random searches. Neighbours and family members are encouraged to report on each other.”
Elizabeth Salmon, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – during the discussion - stressed that the human rights of people in that country “continue to have deteriorated under the current state of tensions and unprecedented isolation”.
In recent months there have been reports of citizens being arrested and executed for accessing South Korean programmes. Security agents are using wiretaps to monitor communication. There has also been increased monitoring and crackdown on defections. A new report on crimes against humanity committed at North Korea’s detention centres has been published.
Arrests and executions for watching South Korean programmes
The North Korean regime has sought to prevent access to foreign media in the country, especially from South Korea. As previously documented, in 2020, North Korea introduced the Rejection of Reactionary Thought and Culture Act, which lays out punishments for various cultural offences. The law calls for sentences of five to fifteen years of forced labour for those caught watching, listening to or storing South Korean films, recordings, compilations, books, songs, drawings or photographs, as well as for those caught importing or distributing songs, drawings, photographs or designs that reflect South Korean culture.
In June 2023, two female farm workers in Chongdam County, South Hwanghae Province, were publicly executed for breaking the channel lock on their television and secretly watching South Korean programmes. Daily NK reported that after their arrest by the Ministry of State Security in December 2022, the two underwent preliminary examinations through June before being publicly executed.
In another case, a man from North Pyongan Province was arrested in July 2023 for watching South Korean dramas, According to Daily NK, in North Pyongan Province on 18th July, the man, who is in his 30s and surnamed Kim, was watching South Korean dramas through a USB drive plugged into his Notetel when he was arrested by the authorities in Kusong.
In August 2023, Daily NK reported that in North Pyongan Province a man in his twenties living in Cholsan County was sent to a political prison camp in July 2023 after being accused of watching South Korean videos. In the past, the man had been sentenced to reform through labour for watching South Korean videos. This time, however, he was sentenced to time in a political prison camp.
Security agents using wiretaps to monitor communication
The regime has blocked communication with the outside world. Access to and use of international mobile phone services are tightly restricted across the country and overseas calls by citizens are almost completely blocked.
In August 2023, Daily NK reported that the state security agency has been devoting more resources to wiretapping citizens’ landlines and mobile phones. Numerous people are being caught in the dragnet and brought in for questioning.
In one case, a broker had spoken on the phone with the family of a North Korean defector who wanted money delivered to their home in the interior of the country. Two days after that phone call, security agents raided his home and demanded he hand over his Chinese-made mobile phone.
Increased monitoring and crackdown on defections
North Korea is ordering diplomatic consulates to thoroughly respond to frequent defections by diplomatic personnel and workers living abroad, Daily NK reported in July 2023.
North Korea is issuing two or more orders a week regarding policies aimed at preventing defections. In the orders, the authorities discuss the deployment of more Ministry of State Security agents overseas, along with more investigations into what overseas North Koreans are saying and thinking.
Six crew members of a fishing boat that disappeared last year after sending a fake distress signal were recently sent to a political prison camp for trying to mount a defection attempt. https://t.co/M74FfD0RtL pic.twitter.com/FuKbDiygzD— The Daily NK (@The_Daily_NK) July 14, 2023
Separately, six crew members of a fishing boat that disappeared in 2022 after sending a fake distress signal were sent to a political prison camp for trying to mount a defection attempt. The boat disappeared while fishing in April 2022 and was discovered by a navy patrol boat a few days after the crew members had sent a distress signal. After over a year of questioning, they were sent to a political prison in June 2022 under charges of attempted defection.
Report on crimes against humanity in detention centres
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and the International Bar Association’s (IBA) War Crimes Committee released a 200-page report in June 2023 on crimes against humanity committed at North Korea’s detention centres.
The report finds that there is a reasonable basis to conclude that Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and other high-level North Korean officials should be investigated for crimes against humanity committed in North Korean detention centres.
The Report, titled ‘Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity in North Korean Detention Centers’, is the culmination of a multi-year investigation and involved four renowned international judges - including the former Presidents of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Rwanda Tribunal - as well as judges who served on the criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Cambodia The judges heard in-person and live virtual testimony from North Korean escapees and experts about crimes that rise to the level of crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute, such as the relentless persecution of Christians, summary executions, and rampant rape, forced abortions and infanticide.