N Korea in new crackdown on dissent

REGIME CHANGE: New laws increasing prison terms for dissidents and 'rebels' are leading observers to wonder if Kim Jong-il's regime is beginning to fray at the edges

AP , SEOUL

Thu, Dec 09, 2004 - Page 5

A North Korean convicted of leading an armed rebellion against the hardline regime faces a minimum sentence of life in prison under changes to the communist nation's criminal code aimed at stemming dissent, South Korea's intelligence agency said yesterday.

The disclosures of the new laws come amid increasingly charged talk abroad about a change in the regime in Pyongyang, with international efforts to convince the country to give up its nuclear program currently stalled.

South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS), said Pyong-yang revised its criminal code in April to increase penalties for crimes deemed threatening to its regime.

There is now no maximum sentence for charges of participating in armed uprisings or defecting to foreign countries, an NIS spokesman said on condition of anonymity. Previously, those crimes were punished by a maximum 10 years in labor camps.

The minimum penalty for leaders of rebellions was raised from 10 years to life imprisonment, and they could also face execution.

The impoverished country also introduced penalties for crimes like "distributing or watching CD-ROMs and other memory devices with depraved and sexual content" or "possessing or distributing broadcasts against the republic."

The Pyongyang regime -- which has ruled its hunger-stricken 22 million populace with the help of a personality cult fortified by hatred toward Americans and misgivings about South Koreans -- sees an increasing danger in the rising number of North Koreans seeking food and work in China, where they are exposed to capitalist South Korean TV broadcasts. Many end up defecting to the South.

Video and cassette tapes of South Korean TV dramas and songs, popular in northern China, have reportedly been smuggled into North Korea.

Activists

Pyongyang also said human-rights activists were smuggling in radios to spread outside news and "depraved American sex culture" and undermine the government.

Recently, observers of the world's most reclusive regime have noted possible signs of subtle cracks in North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's grip on power.

North Korea's refusal to stop developing nuclear weapons has also prompted some outsiders like Shinzo Abe, secretary-general of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, to express doubts about the effectiveness of dealing with Kim and suggest Japan be prepared for regime change.

The speculation, in the wake of reports that Kim's portraits were removed from public buildings, have prompted South Korean leaders to insist North Korea's government is nowhere near collapse. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has warned such talk could push Pyongyang toward desperate moves and complicate nuclear arms control talks.

Negotiations

The two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the US have been negotiating since last year on the nuclear issue, but no breakthrough has been reported and the North boycotted planned talks in September.

"Some people in the United States and certain Western countries seem to think that the North Korean system should collapse, and because of that, North Korea seems to get more agitated and have a great sense of crisis," Roh said on Sunday in Paris.

"It's inevitable that China and South Korea, who don't want North Korea's collapse, can't walk in lockstep with some countries and some people who want a regime change," he said.

"This doesn't help resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis and it's our task how to coordinate the views," he said.

Paek Sung-joo, an analyst at Seoul's Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, said that he expected no significant change in Pyongyang but that Kim's goal was to avoid the fate of Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian communist dictator toppled by a bloody popular revolt in 1989.

Still, loyalty to the government may be fraying after economic reforms last year that virtually ended the state ration system, causing food prices to soar.

"We see signs of a subtle shaking in people's loyalty to Kim Jong-il," Paek said.