How do court trials work in North Korea?

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May 14 2009 6:58 PM

Objection, Dear Leader!

How do court trials work in North Korea?

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Two American journalists arrested near the North Korean border will go on trial in Pyongyang next month, according to an official news agency. How does a trial work in North Korea?

It's hard to know—very few, if any, outsiders have ever seen the North Korean legal system in action. The country has never held an official trial for a foreigner, at least as far as anyone outside the country knows: Past American detainees—such as Evan Hunziker, the Christian missionary who swam to North Korea from China in 1996—have been held without legal proceedings.(Hunziker was released after several months in custody and committed suicide soon thereafter.)

We do have some basic understanding about how the North Korean justice system is organized. The journalists will be tried by the Central Court, the nation's highest judicial body. Usually, the Central Court only hears appeals cases from the lower, provincial courts, but for grievous cases against the state, it has initial jurisdiction. The Central Court is staffed by judges elected by the Supreme People's Assembly, North Korea's one-party parliament.The North Korean Constitution stipulates that each trial is to be conducted by one judge and two "people's assessors"—i.e., lay judges—though special cases may be heard by a three-judge panel. (Appeals cases usually get the panel.) Legal education or experience is not an official prerequisite for becoming a judge, and rulings from the Central Court are not subject to appeal.

North Korean law does recognize the right of the accused to defend herself and to be represented by an attorney. According to the country's penal code, either the defendant, her family, or her "organizational representatives" may select the defense attorney. As the two arrested journalists were not allowed access to any counsel during pretrial investigation, however, there are doubts that they will actually be allowed to select their own counsel. According to the U.S. State Department,there is "no indication that independent, nongovernmental defense lawyers [exist]" in North Korea in the first place.

The proceedings will be conducted in Korean, but the North Korean Constitution does grant foreign citizens the right to use their own languages during court proceedings. Trials are supposed to be open to the public, unless they might expose state secrets or otherwise have a negative effect on society. According to testimony from North Korean defectors, though, trials are often closed in practice. Announcements of the court's findings and executions of sentences are often carried out in public as a means of educating the citizenry.

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Thursday's announcement from North Korea's news agency did not specify what crime the two journalists are being charged with, though Pyongyang has previously accused them of "hostile acts" and illegal entry into the country. If they were prosecuted under a law regarding foreigners who "abuse" or "provoke national difficulty in order to antagonize" the North Korean people, they would face five to 10 years  of "re-education" in a labor camp. Illegal entry carries a sentence of two to three years.

Previously, prisoners could be sentenced to death for a number of vague crimes, such as "ideological divergence" or "opposing socialism." But subsequent to the enactment of a new penal code in 2004, the death penalty is reserved for four crimes: participating in a coup or a plot to overthrow the state, terrorism, treason, or "suppressing the people's movement for national liberation." In practice these four crimes seem to cover a wide range of activities, including, in one reported case from 2007, the making of international phone calls. Judicial proceedings are apparently not required for executions to be carried out.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Chuck Downs and Christopher Kim of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

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