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DPRK - Judiciary

The three-level judicial system is patterned after the Soviet model. The Central Court is the highest court and has judges appointed by the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA). Prosecution Agencies and Courts conduct the administration of justice. Due to the 1998 constitutional amendments, the authority and position of the Prosecution Agencies were extended to dominate that of the Courts. According to the constitution, the Central Court is accountable to the SPA, and the penal code subjects judges to criminal liability for handing down “unjust judgments.”

Under the Central Prosecution Agency, there are provincial, city, and county-level prosecution agencies. Special prosecution agencies are also operational. The Head of the Central Prosecution Agency is appointed every five years by the SPA, while all prosecutors are appointed or dismissed by the Central Prosecution Agency.

The civil law system is based on German codes, with Japanese influences and Communist legal theory. There is no judicial review oflegislative acts. The new law code of 1946 included revised Japanese provisions and a Soviet-based judicial structure. Soviet advisors in North Korea had a heavy role in drafting the 1948 DPRK Constitution along with numerous reform laws and ordinances.

Under the Constitution, the North Korean judicial system is structured in three levels – the Central Court (the highest level), the Court of Province (or municipality directly under the central court that has appellate jurisdiction over the decisions of the People’s Courts within its jurisdiction), and the People’s Court(the lowest level general court which hears most criminal and civil cases). The special courts (or military courts) have special jurisdiction over crimes committed by armed forces personnel, members of the Ministry of Social Safety’s security organs and other military-based organizations. It is supervised by a specialmember of the Central Court.

The courts ordinarily consist of a judge who has a designatedterm and two laymen, known as people’s assessors, who serve only fourteen days per year. The people’s assessors of the Central Court are elected by the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly. The assessors of the other courts are elected by the People’s Assembly at the corresponding level. North Korean law permits secret trials. Particularly when “state secrets, public morality, or individual intimacies” are at issue or when secret trial is provided by law.

The legal system does not acknowledge individual rights. The Ministry of People’s Security routinely dispenses with trials in political cases and refers prisoners to the Ministry of State Security for punishment. In addition to the Central Court, there are provincial courts at the intermediate level, and “people’s courts” at the lowest level. Prosecutors are grouped under separate, parallel chains of command subordinate to the Central Procurator’s Office, which supervises local procurators’ offices at provincial and county levels.

The death penalty is mandatory for activities carried out “in collusion with imperialists” or those aimed at “suppressing the national liberation struggle.” Prisoners have been sentenced to death for such ill-defined “crimes” as “ideological divergence,” “opposing socialism,” and “counterrevolutionary crimes.”

The constitution contains elaborate procedural protections, providing that cases should be public, except under circumstances stipulated by law. The constitution also states that the accused has the right to a defense, and when the government held trials, they reportedly assigned lawyers. Some reports noted a distinction between those accused of political, as opposed to nonpolitical, crimes and claimed that the government offered trials and lawyers only to the latter.

According to the 2013 Hidden Gulag report, the state sent most inmates to prison camps without trial, without knowing the charges against them, and without having legal counsel. The 2010 Witness to Transformation study reported that only 13 percent of the 102 respondents surveyed whom the state had incarcerated in the country received a trial. There were no indications authorities respected the presumption of innocence. According to the UN COI report, “the vast majority of inmates are victims of arbitrary detention, since they are imprisoned without trial or on the basis of a trial that fails to respect the due process and fair trial guarantees set out in international law.”

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