Hundreds of sites where North Korea is believed to have conducted public executions have been revealed as part of new research.

The Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group has mapped hundreds of locations where witnesses claim North Korea carried out public executions and extrajudicial state killings, designed to intimidate and control citizens.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Photo / AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Photo / AP

North Korea's public executions tended to happen near rivers, in fields and on hills, and also at marketplaces and school grounds, the report said.

Residents and family members of those sentenced are often forced to attend the killings.

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Experts believe the aggressive use of the death penalty is designed to provoke fear among citizens.

The human rights group said Tuesday its research was based on interviews conducted over four years with 610 North Korean defectors, who helped locate the sites with satellite imagery.

The group hasn't revealed the exact locations of the 323 sites because it's worried North Korea will tamper with them, but said 267 of them were located in two northeastern provinces near the border with China, the area where most of the defectors who participated in the study came from.

The group also said it documented 25 sites where the dead were allegedly disposed of by the state and also found official locations that may have documents or other evidence related to the killings.

The Associated Press could not independently verify the report, and the group acknowledged its findings weren't definite because it didn't have direct access to North Korea and could not visit the sites defectors told it about.

Heeseok Shim, one of the report's authors, also said interviews with defectors suggested public executions in North Korea were becoming less frequent, although it was unclear whether that was because more people were being executed in secret.

Almost all of the state killings documented in the report were public executions by firing squad. Public executions were almost always preceded by brief "trials" on the spot where charges were announced and sentences were issued without legal counsel for the accused, the report said.

Criminal charges for executions commonly cited by interviewees included violent crimes such as murder, rape and assault, but property crimes like stealing copper or cows and brokering defections.

North Koreans can be seen working in the fields of Kaepoong, seen from the Unification Observation Post in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea. Photo / AP
North Koreans can be seen working in the fields of Kaepoong, seen from the Unification Observation Post in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea. Photo / AP

With a lack of due process in the North's judicial system, it was unclear whether the charges announced at the executions would actually match the act of the accused, the report said. Bodies of people killed by state agents are not typically returned to the family and are often dumped in mountainous areas, buried in the ground without markers or thrown into a gorge or ravine.

Authorities often force family members of those sentenced and residents, including children, to watch public executions.

Some defectors reported incidents in the mid-2010s where guards used metal detectors to find and confiscate mobile phones from witnesses to prevent them from recording the events, which showed the government's concern about the information on public executions getting outside the country.

The rights group said the information it gathered would be crucial if a political transition in North Korea allowed for the identification of victims, the return of remains to families and investigations into human rights abuses committed by the government.

Visitors watch over the border to the North Korean territory at the Unification Observation Post in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea. Photo / AP
Visitors watch over the border to the North Korean territory at the Unification Observation Post in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea. Photo / AP

The group released an earlier report in 2017 based on a smaller number of interviews.

It said the new report was better sourced, based on accounts of direct witnesses or those who heard from direct witnesses and were able to provide geographic information of the sites.

South Korea's Korea Institute for National Unification, a state-sponsored think tank, expressed similar views on its annual white paper on North Korea's human rights released last week. The institute said the North still uses public executions to provoke fear and control the behaviour of its citizens, particularly in city and border areas where crimes are more prevalent.

The Transitional Justice Working Group is a non-government organisation founded by human rights advocates and researchers from South Korea and four other countries.

The group said the new report was made possible by funding from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by the US Congress.

North Korea didn't immediately respond to the report, but the nation bristles at outside criticism of its human rights record and claims negative assessments are part of US-led pressure campaigns meant to tarnish the image of its leadership and destroy the country's political system.

In a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in May, North Korea said it "consistently maintains the principle of ensuring scientific accuracy, objectivity and impartiality, as well as protecting human rights in dealing with criminal cases."

Statistics from the Transitional Justice Working Group report.
Statistics from the Transitional Justice Working Group report.

A 2014 United Nations report on North Korea's human rights conditions, however, said state authorities carried out executions "with or without trial, publicly or secretly" in response to political and other crimes that were often not among the most serious offences.

While public executions were more common in the 1990s, North Korea continued to carry them out for the purpose of instilling fear in the general population, the report said.

The new report said its findings showed arbitrary executions and extrajudicial killings under state custody had continued under the rule of young leader Kim Jong-un despite international criticism over how North Korea supposedly applied the death penalty without due judicial process.

Since assuming leadership in 2011, Kim has shown a brutal side while consolidating his power, executing a slew of members of the North Korean old guard, including his uncle Jang Seong Thaek, who was convicted of treason, and senior officials accused of slighting his leadership.

After a provocative run of nuclear and missile tests, Kim initiated diplomacy with Washington and Seoul in 2018, attempting to leverage his arsenal for economic and security benefits.

But North Korea's human rights issues have so far been sidelined in the summitry between Kim, US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.