North tripled executions to quell outcry

Redenomination repercussions

by Alex Martin

Public executions have more than tripled in North Korea since the dictatorship in late 2009 redenominated its currency and in the process sparked widespread public discontent, according to a recent report seen by The Japan Times.

According to the confidential South Korean government report obtained by Lee Young Hwa, an economics professor at Kansai University, 52 North Koreans were publicly executed between December 2009 and last November, compared with 16 reported executions between January and November 2009.

In the currency redenomination, which took place Nov. 30, 2009, citizens were required to turn in their old currency in exchange for new money at a rate of 100 old won to 1 new won. The government drastically limited the amount of old North Korean won that an individual could exchange, leaving many with piles of valueless paper.

The regime said the redenomination was necessary to curb inflation, but the new bills rapidly dropped in value. Analysts have said the move was aimed at undermining the street-market economy that had grown big, thus helping the government restore the state-run economic sector, which nearly collapsed in the 1990s.

The big losers in the forced exchange were private market traders who had prospered and accumulated surpluses.

The report said the surge in executions was a direct result of the redenomination and was aimed at instilling fear to dampen increasing public discontent aimed at the dictatorship.

“The number of public executions began increasing in 2009, when the succession of power from Kim Jong Il to his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, became full-fledged,” said Lee, a North Korea expert who also heads the organization Rescue the North Korean Refugees — Urgent Action Network (RENK).

“The report is a warning that North Korea’s iron-fisted reign of terror will harden under Kim Jong Un,” he said.

Crime categories that could be subject to the death penalty were increased from five to 21 in March 2008, and further categories were included following the redenomination, including “execution for illegal circulation of foreign currency,” and “death by shooting for leaking information via cell phones,” the report said.

The 52 executed included Korean Worker’s Party high officials Pak Nam Gi and his deputy, Ri Tae Il, whom the report said were executed “as scapegoats” for the redenomination’s failure.

Also notable were the executions of three Christian members of an underground church in Pyongsong, South Pyongyang Province, for proselytizing. Others died for distributing leaflets decrying the redenomination and for creating satirical effigies of Kim Jong Il.

“Demonstrations, distribution of leaflets, crackdown on an underground church — these are all proof of how social unrest is building in the North,” he said.