Mapping the fate of the dead: Killings and burials in North Korea, Progress Report (June 2019) [EN/KO]



This report presents findings from four years of research to document and map three types of locations connected to human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea): 1. state-sanctioned killing sites; 2. sites where the dead are disposed of by the state; and 3. official locations which may house documents or other evidence related to these events. This is the second report from the Transitional Justice Working Group’s Mapping Project. It serves as an update to the first, published in 2017, but presents new data and more advanced analysis of the sites we document.

This report finds that summary or arbitrary executions and extra-judicial killings in state custody have continued under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, despite international criticism of the DPRK’s application of the death penalty without due process. The project uses satellite imagery during interviews with North Korean escapees to geolocate the above sites, and applies Geographic Information System (GIS) technology throughout the research process, from data-gathering to analysis. Geographical mapping of sites connected to human rights abuses provides important information about patterns of killing and burial that are often not visible in interviewee testimonies.

Almost all of the state-sanctioned killings reported were public executions by firing squad. Brief “trials” almost always occur on the spot immediately before a public execution, where charges are stated and a sentence given without legal counsel for the accused. Interviewees reported a recent incident when the guards used hand-held metal detectors to find and confiscate mobile phones from witnesses at a public execution to prevent them recording the events. This suggests regime concern about information on public executions getting out of the country.

We continued to document reports of sites where dead bodies have been disposed of by the state, including burial sites and cremation sites. We also began to record information about locations of deaths resulting from accidents, starvation or illness in state-run facilities, or as a result of state policy.

Interviewees told us the bodies of individuals killed by the regime are not usually returned to family members, nor are the burial locations revealed to families. Most North Korean citizens continue to follow traditional burial practices where scarce resources allow. However, the inability to access information on the whereabouts of a family member killed by the state, and the impossibility of giving them a proper burial, violates both cultural norms and the “right to know”. Of our research participants, 92 percent thought exhumations of burial sites of individuals killed by the regime would be necessary after a transition in the DPRK, to identify victims, return remains to families and to find out the truth of human rights abuses committed by the state.

Future work to investigate crimes in the DPRK will involve preservation of certain sites as crime scenes. Knowing the geographical locations of such sites, along with a detailed understanding of the surrounding environment, increases the likelihood of securing protection for such sites at an early stage. Geospatial mapping also provides information about on-the-ground limitations to investigations ahead of time, such as access and cost. We intend to use the data to assist ongoing efforts internationally to pursue accountability for human rights abuses, and to support future activities focused on redress for the abuses carried out in the DPRK.