A U.S. lawmaker expressed concern Wednesday over increasingly harsh prison sentences against North Koreans trying to flee the impoverished country.
Ed Royce, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California, was in Seoul to attend an international parliamentarians' meeting that drew dozens of lawmakers and civic leaders from 13 countries around the world.
"One of the things that brings us together this year is the fact that North Korea has increased the sentencing in the work camps," Royce told a news conference at a Seoul hotel.
He alleged previous sentences for would-be defectors of six months had now been increased to three years.
"A desperate mother fleeing because their children are starving and can be caught, now she finds herself ... three years in the work camps," Royce said.
A report earlier this year by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said some North Koreans had reported sentences of up to five years given to those who cross the border into China but are repatriated. China treats the North Koreans as economic migrants and returns them home under a treaty with Pyongyang, a practice the international community has called on Beijing to stop.
North Korea has been widely condemned by international groups as having one of the worst human rights records in the world, which the North denies and claims is part of a U.S.-led drive to topple its regime.
More than 10,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea to escape political oppression and hunger since the Korean War ended in 1953, most arriving in recent years.
Royce said North Korean human rights should be a main agenda issue when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun meet Oct. 2-4 in Pyongyang for the second-only summit talks on the divided peninsula.
"It's one of the most important issues because of the gravity of the situation," he said.
Earlier this year, the top U.S. presidential envoy on North Korean human rights, Jay Lefkowitz, said the North had taken no steps to improve human rights despite international criticism.
He said the North conducts mandatory political indoctrination and supports a personality cult around its totalitarian leader Kim.