U.N. asks North Korea to clarify alleged shoot-on-sight orders

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in an undated photo provided July 30 by the country’s government.
(Korean Central News Agency / Associated Press)

Human rights investigators with the United Nations have asked North Korea to clarify whether it has ordered troops to shoot on sight any trespassers who cross its northern border in violation of the country’s pandemic closure.

They were referring to a report by Daily NK, a news site focused on North Korea, which published a photo of what it said was a poster describing an August 2020 proclamation prohibiting acts that impede the closure of the northern border, which the country shares with China and, to a lesser degree, Russia.

The poster describes a buffer zone of 1 km to 2 km (0.62 miles to 1.24 miles) and says any person who makes an unauthorized entry to North Korea “shall be shot unconditionally.” It also says trespassers from other countries found on the North Korean side of the Yulu and Tumen rivers will be “shot without prior warning.”

In an Aug. 23 letter posted on the website of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the special rapporteurs expressed concern about the alleged order. They also asked North Korea to confirm reports that it made the distribution of South Korean cultural products or sexual content punishable by death under a law adopted last December.


Daily NK published photos of a document that supposedly spells out the law, aimed at stemming out “reactionary thought and culture.” The site said the law prescribes the death penalty for import or distribution of cultural contents from South Korea and other “hostile” nations, such as the United States and Japan, and does the same for sexual material.

The U.N. rapporteurs’ letter came weeks after activists from the South Korea-based Transitional Justice Working Group asked the U.N. to press North Korea over the alleged moves.

“We are concerned over the 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 relating to the rights of freedom of opinion and expression and the right to take part in cultural life,” said the U.N. letter. It asked North Korea to provide information on the number of executions carried out under the alleged law against reactionary culture.

The letter was signed by Tomas Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea; Morris Tidball-Binz, special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; and Irene Khan, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

North Korea has never publicly acknowledged shoot-on-sight orders or executions over consumption of capitalist cultural content, and it wasn’t immediately clear whether the country would respond to the U.N. letter. The rapporteurs said they would release the reply if they received one.

Army Gen. Robert Abrams, who was the top commander of U.S. troops in South Korea before retiring this year, told a forum last September that North Korea had put special forces along its border with China to keep out smugglers and that they had “shoot-to-kill orders in place” aimed at preventing the coronavirus from entering the country. Later that month, North Korean troops shot and killed a South Korean government official who was found on a makeshift raft drifting near the sea boundary between the countries. The North said its troops then burned his raft in an anti-virus precaution. North Korea’s northern border with China was a transit point for smuggled goods, and it was unclear whether the alleged order would apply to the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone separating the Koreas.


South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles affairs with the North, said Friday that it couldn’t confirm the reports about the extreme border controls and death penalties.

North Korea closed its border to nearly all traffic nearly from the start of the pandemic last year, banned tourists and flew out diplomats and other authorized foreigners in hopes of sealing itself off from the coronavirus. The country claims that it has not confirmed a single case of infection, despite widespread skepticism.