North Korea ups border punishments after Kim's illness

North Korea has imposed stiffer punishments on those caught trying to flee the destitute state with the new measures coming into effect after reports surfaced that leader Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke, relief groups said, according to Reuters.

The tougher penalties implemented in the past few months were designed to show the central government was well in control as questions were raised about leadership in Asia's only communist dynasty in response to Kim's suspected illness, they said.

"The penalties are getting stronger and they have increased after Kim Jong-il's stroke," said Tim Peters, the founder and director of Helping Hands Korea, a Christian aid group that helps North Koreans seek asylum.

The U.S. State Department said in a report earlier this year that North Korea controlled its population by shutting them off from the outside world, keeping them in fear through arbitrary and unlawful killings and running a network of political prisons to stamp out dissent.

Kim Sung-han, a former U.N. official who now helps North Koreans escape to places such as South Korea where they are almost always granted citizenship, said defectors have told him of the increased penalties.

"North Korea has exerted stricter internal control on its people, which I believe are related to Kim Jong-il's reported health problems," Kim said.

Although North Korea is one of the world's most isolated countries, most of its population has probably heard reports of Kim's illness that first surfaced in September, experts said.

Another activist said his sources inside the state told him the stricter punishments went into full force in October, at about the same time the North stepped up its campaign to show that its "Dear Leader" was alive and fully in control.

"Now repatriated defectors are said to be facing immediate public trials while crowds, sometimes including family members, watch the scene," said Kim Dae-sung of Free North Korea Radio.

"They get sentences of more than a year, a much longer term compared to the previous six-month sentence on average."

North Koreans trying to flee typically cross a narrow river from a north-eastern province into China, where they then seek passage to a third country for their asylum bids. The numbers are higher in June and July when the river is narrow and in winter when it freezes over, aid groups said.

China considers the North Koreans economic refugees and forcibly repatriates them. Once back, the North Koreans face terms in prisons where torture is common and the chance of death is high due to the brutal conditions, they said.

Douglas Shin, another activist who helps North Korean flee, said he does not think the tougher penalties are in response to Kim's health because such a move could be destabilising by furthering internal rumours about the sensitive subject.

Shin said the measures may be due to a change of border guards.

The U.N.'s World Food Programme has warned that North Korea faces another humanitarian crisis due its chronic food shortage growing worse this year. Aid groups said this could lead to even more North Koreans trying to flee in the coming months.

Aid groups have said that hundreds of thousands of North Koreans tried to flee during a famine in the late 1990s that killed about 1 million of the country that now has an estimated population of 23 million.

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