Kyungsook Lee* had a plan. At the urging of her eldest son, together they would escape North Korea and find a new life somewhere else, starting with China. The timing of her escape was significant, as three years previously her mother had died.
For the three years since her mother’s death, Kyungsook had observed the traditional Confucian mourning period, diligently visiting her mother’s grave to make food offerings and commune with her mother’s spirit.
As in all societies, commemorative rituals are not just an expression of a cultural blueprint passed down over generations. Death rituals express and amend social relationships of the family, the village, and the nation.
For citizens of North Korea such as Kyungsook prior to her escape, at particular times of the year — New Year’s Day, Harvest Festival (Chuseok), and the anniversary of a family member’s death — people leave their homes and walk to burial areas located on nearby hillsides. Once a family arrives at the grave mound of their deceased, they unpack food and alcohol, set up photographs of the deceased, and light incense in front of the grave. The burning incense symbolizes that the spirits are eating.
While the spirits of the dead feast on the offerings, the living sit reverently at the foot of the grave mound. The final wisps of incense spiraling into the air signals that the spirits have had their share and the living proceed to help themselves to the food.
Despite the efforts of the North Korean state to wipe out rituals that might compete with the veneration of the ruling Kim family, traditional practices such as ancestor worship continue to play a role in North Korean daily life, especially in the way people relate to the dead.
Such practices have been studied as part of a long-term research project conducted by a Seoul-based NGO, the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG), to understand how the North Korean state interferes with socio-cultural norms around death. The research looks at how people who die in state custody, whether by public execution or in a state detention facility, are treated both immediately prior to and after their passing.
In contrast to those able to carry out ancestor worship, family members of people executed by the state, or of convicts who died while incarcerated, are not typically informed about the final resting place of their relatives, nor does the state generally divulge the reason for deaths in detention.
One interviewee told of a case where a mother pleaded with the local police to reveal the burial location of her son who had died in state custody, only to be turned away. Consequently, for families left guessing about what happened to a loved one, there is no opportunity to practice cultural traditions that clearly still matter to North Korean people, given the extent to which the dead are part of extended kinship structures.
TJWG’s research with over 600 North Korean escapees found that the bodies of those who are accused of crimes and then executed, often in front of a large crowd, are typically taken away by the Ministry of People’s Security (MPS) for disposal. One former MPS officer described transporting four bodies of individuals he had seen executed to an otherwise unremarkable site not far from the execution ground. A one-meter deep hole had been dug in advance, and the officer witnessed six other officers carrying the bodies to the hole, filling it, and leaving it unmarked. Other interviewees told of bodies being thrown into ravines in the mountains.
In North Korea’s political prison camps (gwalliso) and correctional labor camps (gyohwaso) the situation is no better. A number of North Korean escapees who had spent time imprisoned in one of these facilities told of moving the corpses of dead inmates on carts to a site in the forest. The bodies were then dismembered and burned, and the ashes used to fertilize nearby fields.
The significance of mourning family and conducting appropriate rituals takes on particular importance when the location of the dead is unknown by those close to them. The “right to know” the whereabouts of the dead and what happened to them in situations where there have been gross violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law is enshrined in the Basic Principles and Guidelines on such violations, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005. These Principles and Guidelines establish the right to a remedy for victims, emphasizing that they should be treated with compassion and respect for their dignity.
States also have a duty to investigate cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, and the “right to know” is considered a primary need in situations where suffering is caused by uncertainty about the fate of relatives and loved ones.
North Korea is one of a number of states that in modern times has practiced regular killings of its citizens. The regime’s silencing of political and social dissent among the citizenry has necessitated the purging and killing of perceived “enemies of the state” for transgressions including watching South Korean media and stealing food in times of scarcity. One North Korean escapee told researchers about an incident when the wife of a man about to be executed on charges of taking drugs was ordered by the authorities to shout at her husband a poignant reminder of the real victim of his offense: “How dare you betray this country?”
The practice of disposing of bodies in clandestine locations is also not unique to North Korea: Iran has buried human rights abuse victims in mass graves in locations that long remained hidden. Research on settings like Kosovo recognizes that leaders whose power is based on hatred of another community or fear of ordinary citizens exercising basic freedoms have an incentive to withhold answers about the fate of the missing. While the North Korean state claims to have the best interests of the nation at heart, it deliberately leaves its citizens in ignorance and distress regarding the disposal of bodies from state-sanctioned killings. In doing so, it withholds knowledge of missing family as a means of asserting authority.
Forensic investigators tasked with exhuming mass graves of victims of the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996) describe clandestine graves as “landscapes of fear,” used by those in positions of authority to “impose order and sustain control.” Similarly, the North Korean state’s practice of regularly executing citizens in public at a single site year after year, and then burying them without ceremony in restricted locations, creates spaces that are tainted by fear and anxiety, rather than ritualized spaces designed to renew and reconcile relationships with the dead.
How long this situation will continue remains unknown. However, when other abusive regimes have fallen due to a popular revolution or a leadership crisis, very often a reckoning with the past has followed soon afterwards. This reckoning typically takes the form of a transitional justice process to hold perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable and establish redress for victims. In South Africa, for example, a former site of long-running injustice and internal violence, the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission stated that in order to achieve national unity and reconciliation it is necessary to establish and make known the fate and whereabouts of victims.
If and when the time comes for a free and open North Korea to investigate state-sanctioned killings and disappearances, only then might people who have lost family to state violence have an opportunity to transform sites of fear and uncertainty into places that finally connect the departed with appropriate traditions of mourning and remembrance.
* The North Korean escapee referred to in this article has been given a pseudonym.
Dr. Sarah A. Son is Research Director at the Transitional Justice Working Group, Seoul
Dr. Markus Bell is a Lecturer in Korean and Japanese Studies at the University of Sheffield, U.K.