One of the most long-standing execution rumors, however, has been that North Korea had used unconventional and extremely powerful weapons, such as mortar rounds, to kill high-ranking officials. Over the years, a number of North Korean analysts questioned whether North Korea, for all its cruelty, would really use such a needlessly destructive and absurdly impractical method for executions.
Now, satellite imagery appears to show that these absurd execution methods may be true.
Images released by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea this week appears to show several individuals standing in front of antiaircraft machine guns at a military training area 13 miles north of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, around Oct. 7, 2014.
It appears, though it cannot be confirmed, that these people are being executed.
According to Greg Scarlatoiu and Joseph Bermudez Jr., the authors of HRNK's report, the antiaircraft guns in the picture appear to be six ZPU-4s, Soviet-made heavy weaponry first used during the Korean war. They are positioned about 100 feet from the standing figures. A few feet behind the antiaircraft guns, there appears to be a line of troops and/or equipment, the report notes, with buses and trucks at the site suggesting that people had been bused in to watch whatever was happening.
While the ZPU-4 is a quad-barrelled machine gun, rather than a mortar round (or a flamethrower, as other rumors suggested), it would have a similarly destructive effect on a human body. The weapon has four barrels, each firing 14.5mm rounds (equivalent to a .50-caliber round). South Korean officials had suggested that some officials were executed using antiaircraft guns in 2013, but provided no evidence.
"The most plausible explanation of the scene captured in the October 7th satellite image is a gruesome public execution," the authors conclude. "Anyone who has witnessed the damage one single U.S. .50 caliber round does to the human body will shudder just trying to imagine a battery of 24 heavy machine guns being fired at human beings. Bodies would be nearly pulverized."
The image has sparked wide discussion in the North Korea-watching community, where many have learned to take the more audacious reports of regime executions with a grain of salt. HRNK is a prominent group in that community, known for its bold investigations into North Korean atrocities, most notably the country's vast network of political prisons that it dubbed a "Hidden Gulag." A number of experts contacted by WorldViews noted that Joseph Bermudez Jr., one of the report's co-authors, was very well-respected as an expert in his field.
"It is remarkable that a passing satellite was able to capture this moment in time (what are the odds?)," Curtis Melvin, an expert in North Korean satellite imagery who blogs at North Korean Economy Watch, explained in an e-mail. "Without it, the deaths of these people would still be unknown to the outside world."
North Korea has long been suspected of executing a vast number of people, though it rarely acknowledges these executions publicly. (Exceptions are made when the figure being executed is of a high political standing, as in the case of Kim's uncle, Jang Song Taek.) Instead, reports of executions usually filter out through the South Korean intelligence agencies, which recently told lawmakers in Seoul that about 15 senior officials had been executed this year.
It is unclear who the people being executed in HRNK's satellite images were, or why they were being executed. Experts believe, however, that a gruesome public execution in North Korea would probably be designed to instill fear in the wider citizenry.
"The demonstrative effect of the executions is as important as who was killed and for what reason," Adam Cathcart, a North Korea expert at Leeds University in England, explained. "The main thing is that fear as well as patriotic loyalty needs to be instilled into the ranks of the soldiers."