North Korea: a reflection on the reality of the punishments inflicted by the Kim Jong-un regime

(To Gloria Piedinovi)

Some countries do not talk about it for decades. Then, for some reason, they begin to attract media attention from all over the world, as in the case of North Korea.

The two summits of June 2018 in Singapore and of February 2019 in Hanoi between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump on issues related to disarmament and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, have turned the spotlight on not only on international issues as soon as cited, but also on the internal politics implemented by the Pyongyang regime, expression of a totalitarian state of socialist style. Kim Jong-un, Supreme Marshal of North Korea, is now the symbol of a regime renowned for exercising total physical and psychological control over its own people, in which every form of dissent or deviation from political and behavioral doctrine is repressed and punished .

Suffice it to say that following the Hanoi summit last February there were rumors of a series of summary executions ordered by the Supreme Marshal to some senior officials of his delegation in Vietnam, guilty, according to reports, of having conducted bankruptcy negotiations with the delegation US. In particular, a lot of sensation caused the news of the killing of Kim Hyok-chol, Kim Jong-un's special envoy for nuclear negotiations.

There was also talk of an interpreter who was imprisoned for damaging the image of the Supreme Marshal by committing a translation error. No confirmations or denials have come from Pyongyang; however, a few days later Kim Hyok-chol appeared alongside his leader on a public occasion, thus showing the groundlessness of the rumors that declared him executed.

At this point, it is worth wondering from what sources the news of his killing and other harsh punishments inflicted on the officials of the delegation have come. The answer leads back to the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, on whose pages already in the past there had been news of executions ordered by Kim against members of his own entourage, then denied by public appearances of the same concerned. It should also be added that often the newspaper links such news to anonymous sources.

At the same time, the testimony of Shin Dong-huyk, the only North Korean who escaped from one of the re-education camps in which political dissidents and all those suspected of not strictly observing the rules of the regime or do not show adequate devotion to their leader. Shin, born in the internment camp of Kaechon in the 1982 and escaped in the 2005, recounted the life inside these structures: imprisonment, torture, periodic executions to which all prisoners are called to assist as a warning and deterrent to every thought of rebellion, combined with the obligation to report anyone suspected of planning a flight or a subversive act. In the 2015 Shin has partly retracted his testimony, declaring that he had modified some details to create a separation with his past and not be forced to relive particularly difficult moments.

Between news and denials, testimonials then retracted, silences alternated with false statements by Pyongyang, it is inevitable to ask the second question: How true is the image of ruthlessness, cruelty and intolerance to which the Kim Jong-un regime is associated?

I believe that to be able to give an answer it is necessary to make a distinction, that is to divide the punishments into two categories: on the one hand, those that Kim would order to the officials who have disappointed him; on the other hand, the function of re-education camps, in which hundreds of North Korean citizens are locked up in inhuman conditions.

In the first case, we can to a certain extent question the veracity of the news issued by the (mostly) South Korean press about Kim's habit of purging his entourage from officials who somehow do not feel up to defending interests of North Korea. Given the periodic reappearance in public of members considered to be executed, it is likely that the regime's reputation for cruelty, combined with the aggressiveness explicitly expressed above all with nuclear tests, play the part of those to whom Pyongyang's politics is disliked, first of all the South Korea.

The same cannot be said in the second case: internment camps exist, and they are a reality that cannot be ignored. The photos taken by the satellites allow us to clearly identify at least six, although Pyongyang has repeatedly denied its existence. Although some details of Shin Dong-huyk's testimony have been retracted, what is said to happen in these "rehabilitative structures" is the lowest expression of a regime that has no idea what the notion of respect for human rights means.

In this scenario, the world witnessed the handshakes and smiles between Kim and Trump. This is not the place to make an assessment of the (few) concrete results achieved in the two summits. What is striking is rather the fact that a ruthless dictator at the head of a regime considered criminal from the whole world has been treated equally by a leader who represents a country that, at least in its intentions, has always declared itself free and democratic.

On how much Kim is really inclined to punish his loyalists with capital punishment, the benefit of the doubt can be granted; however, it seems impossible to deny that while the Supreme Marshal basked in the spotlight, in his internment camps there are hundreds of North Koreans, guilty or suspected of not totally conforming to the modus vivendi and the thought imposed by the regime, and condemned to a life of imprisonment and forced labor.


For general information various websites and the book by Federico Rampini "When our story begins".

For the account of the executions ordered by Kim towards the senior officials:

For the testimony of Shin Dong-huyk:

Photo: The White House / Google earth