North Korean defector Lee Seong-min is now attending school in Toronto, four years after escaping his home country. (Rick Westhead/Toronto Star)
Seong Min Lee recently offered Star readers a glimpse of life in North Korea in an interview for a story.
He spoke about how many North Koreans are fans of South Korean soap operas and western movies that are banned by the North Korean government.
Now there's news that offers evidence just how dangerous that innocuous habit may be for residents of the closed country.
According to South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, North Korea publicly executed 80 people earlier this month, many for watching smuggled South Korean TV shows.
The newspaper cited a single anonymous source and the report on the executions was later picked up by the Indian cable news channel NDTV.
The source purportedly told JoongAng Ilbo that the executions occurred in seven cities on Nov. 3.
"In the eastern port of Wonsan, the authorities gathered 10,000 people in a sports stadium to watch the execution of eight people by firing squad, the source quoted one eyewitness as saying," NDTV reports.
One defector-run website, North Korea Intellectual Solidarity, said its sources reported several months ago on plans for a wave of public executions.
Randall Baran-Chong, executive director of HanVoice, a Toronto non-profit that helped to bring Lee to Canada to study, said Lee has been unable to confirm reports that some of the executions took place in his home town.
"The regime recognizes the existential threat that information poses to regime, and these punishments are indicative of how seriously they take this threat," Baran-Chong told The Star. "I can't confirm the veracity of the claim, but it would be consistent with the regime's behaviours in more strictly closing off the border with China under the Kim Jong Un regime (to the point where defections dropped by over 40% in 2012."
Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at The Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead