North Korea staged gruesome public executions of 80 people this month, some for offenses as minor as watching South Korean entertainment videos or being found in possession of a Bible, a South Korean newspaper reported Monday.
The daily JoongAng Ilbo attributed the mass executions to a single, unidentified source, but at least one other news agency, run by North Korean defectors, reported hearing rumors of the killings in seven cities across the reclusive country.
Authorities in Wonsan, a port on North Korea's eastern coast that is being transformed into a resort in hopes of attracting foreign investment to the impoverished country, gathered more than 10,000 residents in a stadium and forced them to watch the firing-squad executions, the newspaper reported.
The condemned were lashed to poles, hooded, then sprayed with machine-gun fire, JoongAng Ilbo quoted its source, who reportedly is familiar with North Korean internal affairs and recently returned from the country.
"I heard from the residents that they watched in terror as the corpses were so riddled by machine-gun fire that they were hard to identify afterwards," the source was quoted as saying.
If confirmed, the mass execution would be the most brutal step known to have been taken by the country's 30-year-old leader, Kim Jong Un, who came to power two years ago after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
The South Korean newspaper, one of the country's largest and most influential, noted that the executions occurred in cities where the communist leadership is attempting to create entities that can earn hard currency and may have been intended to intimidate workers who stray from the regime's dictatorial social strictures.
Some of those put to death had been charged with disseminating pornography, JoongAng Ilbo said it was told by its source.
In August, Kim was reported to have ordered the executions of a dozen entertainers from the Unhasu Orchestra and the Wangjaesan Light Music Band, including ex-girlfriend Hyon Song Wol. Chosun Ilbo, another leading South Korean daily, said the troupe members reportedly filmed themselves having sex and sold the videos on the black market to earn money.
Monday's report said a South Korean official with business in the North had been told by North Korean authorities that an investigation into the Unhasu affair suggested Kim's wife had been involved in similar prohibited activities. The source suggested that the entertainers were executed to prevent disparaging accounts from circulating about the first lady's behavior.
None of those executed on Nov. 3 had been accused of capital crimes, which under North Korean law include sedition, treason and terrorism, the newspaper said. But it added that public executions are often carried out as a way of discouraging interest in what the regime considers corrupting foreign influence, which can include using a cellphone, religious proselytizing or viewing pornography.
"The regime is obviously afraid of potential changes in people's mind-sets and is preemptively trying to scare people off," said an official of the defector-run North Korea Intellectual Solidarity website, Agence France-Presse reported.
None of the executions were reported to have occurred in Pyongyang, the capital, where the regime nurtures a loyal following among the small elites by focusing its meager development resources on the city.
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