North Korea’s Unlawful ‘Shoot on Sight’ Orders

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A North Korean flag flutters in the wind at a military guard post seen from the South Korean city of Paju, at the border with North Korea, May 3, 2020. 
© 2020 AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, North Korea has locked down and created buffer zones on its borders, preventing citizens from transiting without tightly regulated permission from the government. North Korea-focused media outlets have now obtained and translated a police order stating that those entering buffer zones without permission “will be unconditionally shot,” or if seen on the North Korean side of border rivers, “shot without prior notice.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would be wise to consider history here. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent collapse of East Germany’s government, authorities there prosecuted the country’s former president Erich Honecker, who had presided over East Germany’s totalitarian government for almost two decades. He was mainly charged with homicide over scores of shootings of East German citizens attempting to flee to the West, often in the Berlin Wall’s internal buffer zone, known as its “death strip.”

Outside of an armed conflict situation, where the laws of war apply, issuing a shoot-on-sight order is a serious violation of international human rights law, which addresses the use of deadly force by security forces. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials states that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that whenever the lawful use of firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall “[e]xercise restraint in such use” and “[m]inimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.” Furthermore, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

When use of deadly force is not legally justified, it constitutes a violation of the basic right to life. It also constitutes homicide. Personnel who carry out shootings on sight can be liable for the killings. Authorities that order unauthorized use of force can be criminally liable for any homicides that result, or as a matter of command responsibility if they take no action to stop them.

If Kim Jong Un doesn’t want to expose himself to the same criminal liability for which East Germany’s president was prosecuted in 1992, he should rescind the border order immediately.