Satellite images identify 47 mass grave sites in North Korea
A Seoul-based NGO has used publicly available satellite imagery and testimony from hundreds of defectors to identify 47 potential mass graves in North Korea.
In a 58-page report released on Wednesday, The Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) said it believes that more sites have yet to be identified and that it hopes its ongoing research will be used in the future in legal actions against North Korean officials accused of crimes against humanity.
Founded by human rights activists from five nations, the group began its research in 2015 and said its Mapping Project had the potential to contribute to the international database “to support the push for accountability, as well as for future efforts to institute a process of transitional justice following a change in the political conditions in North Korea”.
To date, 375 defectors from North Korea have been interviewed and asked about public executions they had witnessed, mass graves they had seen or other atrocities they had heard about perpetrated against other citizens.
The interviewees were invited to examine large-scale satellite images of the towns where they used to live and, once they had found their bearings by identifying key landmarks, such as train stations and offices of the ruling party, asked to point out locations where they had witnessed a public execution.
Designed to instil loyalty into the general public, executions are typically carried out in town squares, sports stadiums or marketplaces and local residents are summoned to watch.
Witnesses – who include state security officials and prison guards who have defected – have also claimed to have seen mass graves in the hills around towns, while others reported seeing bodies simply dumped by the roadside on the outskirts of villages.
Individuals and groups of people who died in the custody of state security are also included in the study, as are people who died of deliberate starvation because they were denied access to food.
Inevitably, many of the suspected mass graves are found close to the North’s network of prison and labour camps.
There are no reliable figures on the number of people who die each year in the various camps, although it is estimated that 120,000 people are presently being detained for crimes against the state.
The 375 defectors reported no fewer than 333 sites where killings took place and 52 locations where they saw dead bodies. Other than executions, the evidence suggests that people are also being killed in river beds, alongside bridges and close to prisons.
Many of the sites have been plotted on the satellite images, with analysts pointing out that such visual evidence has been used previously, in Bosnia, to locate mass graves.
The group said it had been unable to physically visit any of the sites that have been pointed out and it was protecting the exact locations of the suspected mass graves out of concern that the North Korean authorities might try to conceal evidence of their actions, such as by excavating the remains.