NORTH KOREA: 'Toughening Up' its policies and penalties

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Pyongyang now hands down 'longer sentences in abusive prisons' if defectors are found trying to flee the country. A key turning point, it says, was 2004 when South Korea airlifted 468 North Korean refugees from Vietnam into the safety of its own territory - much to Pyongyang's fury.

Thereafter, says HRW, the punishment for illegal border-crossing has typically been several years in prison, where defectors face beatings, forced labour and starvation. Previously, the penalty was more likely to have been a few months in prison or labour camp - though RI sources report that some repatriated defectors such as Christians have been executed.

Indeed, HRW's report, which is based on interviews with North Korean defectors, confirms the widely held belief that Pyongyang reserves particularly brutal treatment for defectors who have met Christian missionaries and, worse still, those who have turned to Christ.

One woman from Saebyul, interviewed in China, said: 'Now first-time offenders serve one year in regular prison, second-time offenders three years. Those who went to church [while in China] go to kwanliso [political prison camp] for 10 years.'

Tim Peters, director of RI partner Helping Hands Korea which supports North Korean defectors, says that the crackdown is symptomatic of a regime in meltdown. He claims chronic food shortages are leading to unrest, corruption and widespread disillusionment with political leadership: 'The picture I see is a regime that is desperate to maintain control of a population (which is) increasingly restive and even beginning to openly question. The decay of the system, in my view, has caused it to rot to the very marrow of society.'

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