As many as 80 people were publicly executed in North Korea earlier this month, some for offenses as minor as watching South Korean movies or possessing a Bible.
South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo reported that the so-called criminals were put to death in seven cities across North Korea on Nov. 3, in the first known large-scale public executions by the Kim Jong-un regime.
A source, who is familiar with internal affairs in the North and who recently visited the country, told the paper that about 10 people were killed in each city.
Eight people -- their heads covered with white bags -- were tied to stakes at a local stadium in the city of Wonsan, before authorities shot them with a machine gun, according to the source.
Wonsan authorities gathered a crowd of 10,000 people, including children, at Shinpoong Stadium and forced them to watch the killings.
“I heard from the residents that they watched in terror as the corpses were (so) riddled by machine-gun fire that they were hard to identify afterward,” the JoongAng Ilbo source said.
Most of the Wonsan victims were charged with watching or illegally trafficking South Korean videos, involvement in prostitution, or possessing a Bible.
Relatives or accomplices of the execution victims implicated in their alleged crimes were sent to prison camps.
There is no clear reason for the executions. One government official noted they occurred in cities that are centers of economic development. Wonsan is a port city that Kim is reportedly planning to make a tourist destination by building an airport, hotels and a ski resort on Mount Masik.
Simultaneous executions in seven cities could suggest an extreme measure by the North Korean government to quell public unrest or any capitalistic inclinations that may accompany its development projects.
The common theme of the persecution was crimes related to South Korea -- like watching South Korean films -- or corruption of public morals, especially sexual misconduct. North Korean law permits executions for conspiring to overthrow the government, treason and terrorism. But the country has also been known to order public executions for minor infractions such as religious activism, cellphone use and stealing food, in an effort to intimidate the public.
Some experts questioned whether the executions were related to earlier executions of members of the Unhasu Orchestra, a state-run orchestra that First Lady Ri Sol-ju used to participate in, according to the report.
“As the news that people were brutally killed in public executions spread in the countryside, the people have been spreading rumors that say that Kim Jong-un has started a terror campaign in response to the Ri Sol-ju’s pornography scandal,” the source told JoongAng Ilbo.
There were no executions in the capital of Pyongyang, where Kim depends on the support of the country’s elite. The young leader continues to build luxury and recreational facilities in the capital, including a new water park.
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