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Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.
A Seoul-based NGO has spent the last two years attempting to identify key locations where human rights abuses are claimed to have taken place in North Korea in an effort to seek accountability for those responsible, according to a new report published on Wednesday.
The report, published by the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG), is a preliminary effort to “build a digital map of crimes against humanity in North Korea”, a press release accompanying the report read.
According to the report, TJWG interviewed 375 North Korean defectors over a two year period, cross referencing testimony with other data sources including satellite imagery.
The report aims to identify locations such as suspected mass burial sites, execution sites, and locations where documentary evidence of human rights violations could potentially be stored, such as police stations, detention facilities, and military bases.
The technique of combining testimony with satellite imagery has previously been used by analysts, and by a UN Commission of Inquiry (COI), in response to a lack of access to the country.
The UN COI concluded in its 2014 report that the North Korean government has committed a litany of abuses that, in certain instances, amount to crimes against humanity – findings that provoked Wednesday’s report, TJWG said.
North Korea has repeatedly rejected the findings of the COI report.
“The Mapping Project was initiated in the wake of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea (UN COI), in response to the subsequent call for accountability for perpetrators of human rights abuses,” the TJWG press release reads.
While the report does contain some preliminary mapping data showing the number of suspected killing and burial sites in North Korea’s provinces based on the testimony collected, it intentionally does not contain any satellite imagery of these suspected sites.
“We have a lot of satellite images but we can’t show them because the (North Korean) government… might destroy these sites, that is the biggest concern,” Sehyek Oh, the Lead Researcher on the project, told NK News.
The report, supported financially by the U.S. Congress-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED), did, however, detail several current findings.
“Our initial research indicates that burial sites are often located in mountainous areas, away from residential areas, but may also be found in parts of common cemeteries and around prisons,” the report reads.
“Killing sites tend to be found in riverbeds, market places, near bridges, facilities for detention and imprisonment, and sports fields.”
The report, according to the group, is by no means complete, and the aim is for the long-term documentation of potential sites relevant to human rights abuses.
“We want to continue to interview defectors, and continue the mapping project with interview of 375 people up to this point, over two years, but we really expect this project will be five or ten years,” Scott Stevens, TJWG Director of Communications, told NK News.
Additional reporting: Damin Jung
Featured image: Google Earth