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April 23, 2017

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Aid group: NKorea jailed kin of currency reformer

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea sent nearly three dozen relatives of former economic officials to a prison camp over the country's botched currency reform, a South Korean aid group said Tuesday.

North Korea's Ministry of State Security last month sent 34 relatives of former economic official Pak Nam Gi and others to a prison camp on the outskirts of the northern city of Hoeryong, Seoul-based Good Friends said on its website.

The communist North redenominated its currency late last year to fight inflation and reassert control over its burgeoning market economy. The measure, however, reportedly sparked unrest as it left many North Koreans stuck with piles of worthless bills.

Pak spearheaded the reform as the former finance and planning department chief of the ruling Workers' Party. He and an unidentified senior official were reportedly executed by a firing squad at a Pyongyang stadium in March as punishment for the policy failure.

On June 14, the relatives of Pak and other officials were collected and forcibly loaded into a wagon before being sent to the prison camp, the organization reported, citing an unidentified official at the North's security ministry.

The authorities transported the relatives in the middle of night in part to keep it a secret from the rest of the world to avoid international criticism, the official was quoted as saying.

South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, said it could not immediately confirm the report. The National Intelligence Service — the country's main spy agency — said it is checking the report.

North Korea is one of the world's most isolated nations and its radios and TV sets receive only broadcasts by state media. One way monitoring agencies and aid groups in Seoul such as Good Friends get information from sources in North Korea is via illicit mobile phones that connect to networks in neighboring China.

North Korea is regarded as having one of the worst human rights records characterized by public executions, camps for political prisoners and torture.

It is not rare for Pyongyang to execute officials for policy failures and to banish their friends and families to prison and labor camps. In the 1990s, North Korea publicly executed a top agricultural official following widespread starvation. Many defectors have spoken of the regime's punishment-by-association policy.

The North faces chronic food shortages and has relied on outside aid to feed much of its 24 million people since a famine that is believed to have killed as many as 2 million people in the 1990s.

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