North Korea Table of Contents
Under the guidance of the Justice and Security Commission of the Central People's Committee, the two main components of the post- 1945 judicial system are the Central Court and Central Procurator systems. These organizations perform their functions as "powerful weapons of the proletariat dictatorship, which execute the judicial policies of the Korean Workers' Party."
North Korea has a three-tiered court system with a Central Court, Provincial Courts (or Court of the Province), and People's Courts at the county level. The appeal process is based on the principle of a single appeal to the next highest court.
The Central Court is the final court of appeal for criminal and civil cases and has initial jurisdiction for grievous crimes against the state. According to the 1992 constitution, the Supreme People's Assembly has the power to elect and recall the president of the Central Court and to appoint or remove the president of the Central Procurator's Office (Article 91, items 12-13). The Standing Committee of the Supreme People's Assembly interprets the laws and ordinances in force and elects and recalls judges and people's assessors of the Central Court (Article 101, items 3, 9). The Central Court supervises all lower courts and the training of judges. It does not exercise the power of judicial review over the constitutionality of executive or legislative actions nor does it have an activist role in protecting the constitutionally guaranteed rights of individuals against state actions. The Central Court is staffed by a chief judge or president, two associate chief judges or vice presidents, and an unknown number of regular judges.
The Central Court also arbitrates matters involving the nonfulfillment of contracts between state enterprises and cases involving injuries and compensation demands. These administrative decisions always reflect party policies.
Below the Central Court are the courts of the provinces and cities under central authority--courts that serve as the courts of first and only appeal for decisions made by the People's Courts. They are staffed in the same manner as the Central Court. Like the Central Court, provincial courts have initial jurisdiction for certain serious crimes. In addition, provincial courts supervise the People's Courts.
The People's Courts are at the lowest level of the judicial system. They are organized at the county (gun, or kun) level even though they may have jurisdiction over more than one county or smaller city. They have initial jurisdiction for most criminal and civil cases. Unlike the high courts, they are staffed with a single judge, who is assisted by two "people's assessors," laymen who are temporarily selected for the judiciary. An initial trial typically is presided over by one judge and two people's assessors. If the case is appealed, three judges preside, and a decision is made by consultation.
The constitution does not require legal education as a qualification for being elected as a judge or people's assessor. Over time, however, legal training has received more emphasis, although political reliability remains the prime criterion for holding office.
The Central Procurator's Office parallels the court system. In accordance with Article 162 of the 1992 constitution, "Investigation and prosecution are conducted by the Central Procurator's Office, the procurator's offices of the province (or municipality directly under central authority), city (or district) and county and special procurator's office." The office supervises or conducts investigations, arrests, preparation of indictments, criminal prosecutions, and criminal trial proceedings. It has the right to initiate court appeals. This supervisory function over the judiciary includes ensuring that the court system interprets the law in accordance with the KWP's wishes. As of July 1992, the procurator general of the Central Procurator's Office was Han Sang-kyu; there are three deputy procurators general.
Socialist law-abiding life guidance committees were established in 1977 in the Central People's Committee and in the people's committees at the provincial-, city-, and county-levels. These ad hoc committees meet once a month and are chaired by the president of the people's committee. The committees are a control measure for ensuring respect for public authority and conformity to the dictates of socialist society. The committees are empowered to implement state power, monitor the observance of law by state and economic institutions, and prevent the abuse of power by the leading cadre of these institutions. To this end, they have oversight of state inspection agencies, the procuracy, and the police; they also have supervision and control of all organizations, workplaces, social groups, and citizens in their jurisdiction. The committees can apply strict legal sanctions to all violations short of crimes.
Little reliable information is available on specific criminal justice procedures and practices as of mid-1993. Although North Korea refuses outside observation of its legal system, it is clear that the limited guarantees legally in place often are not followed in practice. There is reliable information of summary executions in the case of political crimes.
The 1992 constitution guarantees judicial independence and requires that court proceedings be carried out in accordance with laws containing elaborate procedural guarantees. Article 157 of the constitution states that "cases are heard in public, and the accused is guaranteed the right to a defense; hearings may be closed to the public as stipulated by law." According to the United States Department of State's Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1990 and a 1988 report by Asia Watch and the Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee, however, practice is another matter. Additionally, according to the Criminal Code, defense attorneys are not proxies for the defendant but are charged with ensuring that the accused take full responsibility for his or her actions.
North Korean law limits incarceration during investigation and interrogation to a period not to exceed two months. The period of incarceration, however, can be extended indefinitely with the approval of the Central Procurator's Office. The approval apparently is given quite freely. It is not uncommon for individuals to be detained for a year or longer without trial or charge. During interrogation, at least through the early 1980s, there was strong evidence that prisoners were routinely tortured or ill treated. Habeas corpus or its equivalent is not recognized in theory or practice. In addition, information about detainees is restricted, and it is often very difficult, if not impossible, for concerned family members to obtain any data about someone being detained.
Party influence is pervasive in both criminal and political cases. In criminal cases, the government assigns lawyers for the defense. Defense lawyers are not considered advocates for the defendant so much as independent parties to help persuade the accused to admit his guilt, although they apparently present facts to mitigate punishment. In political cases, trials often are dispensed with and the Ministry of Public Security refers the cases directly to the Ministry of State Security for the imposition of punishment.
The penal code is draconian in nature and apparently does not accept the principles of modern criminal law that state that there is no crime unless so specified by law, that law may not be applied retroactively, and that the law cannot be extended by analogy. Article 10 of the North Korean Criminal Code states that "in the case of an offense that does not fall under any expressed clause of the criminal law, the basis, scope, and punishment for it shall be determined according to the clause on acts that resemble it most in terms of its type and danger to society."
The Penal Code adopted in 1987 simplifies the 1974 code without making substantial changes in the definitions of crimes or penalties. The entire section entitled Military Crimes, contained in Part 5 of the previous code, has been deleted. It is likely that military crimes still are treated as a criminal category, and are covered by another, separate code.
The 1987 code generally covers fewer types of crimes. Crimes eliminated from the general heading of treason include armed incursions, hostile crimes against the socialist state, and antirevolutionary sabotage. Penalties also have been relaxed. The number of crimes for which the death penalty can be applied has been reduced from twenty civil crimes to five offenses in addition to those offenses covered under the Military Crimes section. Retained as capital offenses are plots against national sovereignty (Article 44), terrorism (Article 45), treason against the Motherland by citizens (Article 47), treason against the people (Article 52), and murder (Article 141). The death penalty no longer applies to propaganda and sedition against the government; espionage; armed intervention and instigating the severance of foreign relations; antirevolutionary disturbances; theft of government or public property; violation of railway, water, or air transportation regulations; mob violence; unauthorized disclosure of or loss of official secrets; rape; and robbery of personal property. The maximum sentence has been reduced from twenty to fifteen years.
In May 1992, the chairman of the criminal law department at Kim Il Sung University published an address on misinterpretations of the North Korean Criminal Code. He pointed out that the code banned death sentences for minors under seventeen years of age when the crime was committed and for pregnant women. The code has no penalty of confinement; all noncapital punishment is in the form of forced labor. The code also stipulates that revisions to it cannot be applied retroactively to define an act as criminal that was not so at the time of commission or to raise the maximum penalty. Reductions of penalties, however, apply retroactively. The code also redefines several of the provisions related to contact with South Korea in a manner apparently aimed at drawing attention to the strict limits of South Korea's National Security Law on unauthorized North/South contacts.
The definition of the most serious political crimes--reforms notwithstanding--is ambiguous and includes both counterrevolutionary crimes and more general political offenses. Punishment for counterrevolutionary crimes is severe, it involves capital punishment, loss of property, and even summary execution for almost any dissident activity. Furthermore, these cases are often decided without recourse to the appropriate legal procedures. Most political offenses do not go through the criminal justice system, but are handled by the State Security Department. Trials are closed, and there is no provision for appeal. Punishment is often broadened to include the offender's immediate and extended family.
Data as of June 1993
North Korea Table of Contents