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U.N. presses North Korea for details on executions under thought-crime law

U.N. presses North Korea for details on executions under thought-crime law
A letter to North Korea from the U.N. Human Rights Council expresses concern over a "shoot-on-sight policy for unauthorized entry into the buffer zone along the northern border, as well as over the death penalty, without judicial guarantees, imposed on acts that appear to be guaranteed by international human rights law." File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, Aug. 27 (UPI) -- Investigators from the United Nations Human Rights Council sent a letter to North Korea seeking explanations about purported shoot-to-kill orders at borders and a recent law against "reactionary" thought, which has been linked to executions.

The letter, dated Monday, was sent by U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana and special rapporteurs on extrajudicial killings and freedom of expression.

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"We are concerned over shoot-on-sight policy for unauthorized entry into the buffer zone along the northern border, as well as over the death penalty, without judicial guarantees, imposed on acts that appear to be guaranteed by international human rights law," the letter states.

The investigators were responding to documents detailing the North Korean policies, photographs of which were first obtained by online news site Daily NK. The information was submitted jointly with the Transitional Justice Working Group, a Seoul-based human rights nongovernmental organization, to the U.N. human rights experts in July.

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According to one document, North Korea instituted a one- to two-kilometer-wide buffer zone along its northern border a year ago and ordered that anyone who makes unauthorized entry "shall be shot unconditionally."

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North Korea closed its borders in January 2020 to guard against COVID-19, a move that has taken a severe economic toll on the country.

Pyongyang also adopted an "anti-reactionary thought" law in December, which calls for punishments ranging from hard labor to death for crimes such as importing and distributing videos and books from South Korea, the United States and Japan. Also banned are pornography and the use of unregistered TVs, radios, computers and mobile phones. The law also prohibits speaking, writing or singing in a South Korean style.

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Authorities publicly executed a man in April under the law, according to Daily NK, for selling CDs and USBs filled with South Korean films, TV shows and music videos.

Pyongyang has long attempted to restrict the flow of information entering the tightly controlled state, but the dire economic situation created by prolonged border shutdowns has put the country's leadership on edge, said Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, a legal analyst with the Transitional Justice Working Group.

"North Korea is facing probably its worst economic crisis since the 1990s," Shin said. "That means there's a growing discontent among the population, and the North Korean authorities want to tighten their ideological control. The way they're doing it is trying to cut off these disruptive ideas coming from abroad."

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The U.N. investigators are asking Pyongyang to explain how the measures comply with North Korea's obligations under international human rights treaties. They are also seeking further information on the application of the anti-reactionary thought law -- "particularly the number of executions that have been carried out," the letter said.

It is unclear whether North Korea will respond to the U.N. request. However, Shin said that the missive from the rapporteurs may help exert pressure on North Korea.

"Pyongyang pretends they don't care about this kind of this kind of discourse and the U.N. human rights bodies, but they actually do -- not least because they are always fearful that the North Korean situation will be referred to the [International Criminal Court] by the U.N. Security Council," Shin said.

The letter will "make [Pyongyang] aware that the international community is taking notice of these developments in North Korea," he said. "We hope that more actions like this will be helpful in at least curbing the human rights violations taking place in North Korea."

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