On the North Korean legal system

From Slate (regarding the upcoming trial of Euna Lee and Laura Ling):

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.

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.

As supplemental material, I have posted numerous DPRK statutes on this web page.  To see the full list, scroll down the menu to “DPRK policies,” under which you can see them all.  Of course, the DPRK is not a “rule of law” country, so the statutes themselves and even the constitution are not worth that much in terms of defining the “rules of the game” or defining/predicting the scope of “legitimate” government activity. 

There have been several foreign law firms that have attempted to set up shop in the DPRK.  Currently the only firms with legal offices or a periodic presence are: Hay, Kalb, and Associates, Kelvin Chia Partnership, and Chiomenti  of Italy (formerly Birindelli e Associati ).

Read the full article below:
Objection, Dear Leader!
Slate.com
Nina Shen Rastogi
5/14/2009

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