BANGKOK (AFP)- A US citizen working as a Christian missionary in Thailand could face up to five years in jail on charges of smuggling seven North Koreans into the kingdom, police said Wednesday.
Hundreds of North Koreans risk their lives each year to escape poverty and repression in the hardline communist nation.
Most cross the frontier into China - which repatriates those whom it catches - before travelling on to a Southeast Asian nation, from where they try to arrange passage to South Korea.
But the number of escapees has decreased sharply since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took power following the death of his father in late 2011 and stepped up border security.
Thai police said US citizen Lee Isaac Byungdo, 39, was arrested Monday in the northeastern province of Nong Khai for helping to smuggle the group of North Koreans - six men and one woman - into Thailand from neighbouring Laos.
"CCTV footage showed seven North Koreans entering Thailand along the Laos border on June 17. They were picked up by a car on the Thai side," provincial immigration police chief Pallop Suriyakul na Ayutthaya told AFP.
The number plate was traced to a Thai rental company which led police to Lee, who has worked in the northern province of Chiang Mai for nearly two decades, he said.
The missionary now faces up to five years in jail on the smuggling charge.
Pallop added that Lee confessed to helping the North Koreans cross the border after receiving a call to assist them from a Korean man in Laos.
The missionary as well as the seven North Korean nationals, who were arrested on charges of illegal entry, are being detained in Nong Khai.
A spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Bangkok said it was "aware of reports that a US citizen was arrested on human smuggling charges in Thailand".
"Due to privacy considerations we are unable to comment further," she said.
Around 28,000 North Koreans have escaped to the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Under leader Kim, the isolated state has tightened border security. China typically repatriates escapees despite criticisms from rights groups.
Many face severe punishment including, rights monitors say, torture and a term in a prison camp once they are sent back to the North.
Groups of North Korean refugees have previously been arrested after crossing into Thailand along its northern border, and in the past most have been allowed to move to South Korea.
A group of 19 were arrested in northern Chiang Rai province in June 2012.