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Report: North Korea publicly executes people caught watching K-pop, forces their families to look on

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JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea has publicly executed at least seven people in the past decade caught watching or distributing K-pop videos from South Korea, a human rights group said Wednesday as part of a new report investigating state-sanctioned killings under leader Kim Jong-un.

In the report, titled, “Mapping Killings Under Kim Jong-un,” the Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group claimed that North Korea's young leader has responded to international scrutiny over the country's human rights abuse record by clamping down on information leakage and selecting execution sites that are easier for his government to control.

But through analyses of satellite imagery and interviews with 683 North Korean escapees, the rights group said it was able to account for at least 23 public executions over the last 10 years, seven of which were carried out simply for engaging with South Korean pop culture entertainment — including songs, movies, and TV dramas.

The other public executions were reportedly for "drug-related crimes (5), prostitution (5), human trafficking (4), murder or attempted murder (3), and 'obscene acts' (3)," the group said.

The New York Times appeared to be the first U.S. outlet to report on the group's work. The paper previously reported that Kim Jong-un had called K-pop a "vicious cancer" that is corrupting young North Koreans’ “attire, hairstyles, speeches, behaviors." And that, if nothing was done, it would make North Korea “crumble like a damp wall.”

The Times said that a new law was enacted last December in North Korea aimed at stopping the flow of K-pop into the country from China. It calls for up to 15 years of labor camp sentencing for people who watch or possess the South Korean material. But for those who distribute the material, the punishment can be even stiffer and include the death penalty.

According to the rights group, the country likely continues to punish the distribution of such material by public execution, as well, in an effort to warn onlookers about the seriousness of the crime.

The group said that most of the executions took place in Hyesan, a northern city that borders China and is considered a major trade hub and entry point for K-pop smuggling. Officials in the city would mobilize the public to come to the execution site and look on as they killed the accused by firing squad.

"The families of those being executed were often forced to watch the execution,” the group reported. It added that officials often engaged in the inhumane treatment of the accused persons both prior to and after the execution.

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