North Korea has ordered its border guards to open fire on anyone who crosses its border without permission, in what could be an attempt to thwart defections by people disgruntled over its recent currency reform, a news report said Saturday.
The National Defense Commission _ the top government body headed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il _ recently instructed soldiers to kill unauthorized border crossers on the spot, South Korea's mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper said, citing unidentified sources inside the North.
It said the order could be an attempt by the communist government to stop members of North Korea's middle class who are angry over suddenly being deprived of their money from leaving the country.
Officials at South Korea's spy agency were not immediately available for comment Saturday.
Thousands of North Koreans have defected to South Korea in recent years, most of them via China. Last year, about 2,800 North Koreans arrived in the South, up from about 2,500 in 2007.
The reported move came amid signs of growing anger among North Korean citizens left with hoards of worthless bills.
On Monday, the government informed citizens and foreign embassies that it would redenominate the national currency, the won. But it limited the maximum amount of old bills that could be converted into new ones, telling residents to deposit the rest in government-run banks, according to media reports and diplomats.
There are widespread doubts among North Koreans whether they would be able to get their money back, they said.
Angry citizens burned piles of old bills at two separate locations in the eastern coastal city of Hamhung on Monday, the Daily NK, a Seoul-based online news outlet that focuses on North Korean affairs, reported Thursday, citing an unidentified North Korean resident.
It quoted the resident as saying he saw graffiti and leaflets criticizing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in and around a college in Hamhung _ a rare move in a country where the totalitarian government keeps tight control over its 24 million people.
However, a Tokyo-based newspaper considered a mouthpiece for the North's government claimed Friday that North Koreans were praising the currency reform.
The Choson Sinbo cited the North's central bank as saying the reform was aimed at boosting the country as a "socialist economic power" and that the role of the markets would be gradually weakened as state control over the economy is strengthened.
North Korea set the exchange rate at 100 old won in cash to 1 new won, though it offered a 10-1 exchange rate for personal savings at banks to encourage more savings, the Choson Sinbo said.
Initially, residents were only allowed to exchange 100,000 won per household for the new currency. But the government later increased the amount, allowing each family member to trade an additional 50,000 old won for new ones, according media reports.
The North Korean won was previously officially traded at 145 to the dollar, but more than 3,000 were needed to buy $1 on the black market, according to Dong Yong-sueng, a senior fellow at Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul.
The overhaul of the won _ the most drastic in 50 years _ appears aimed at curbing runaway inflation and clamping down on street markets that have sprung up. The government is also retaking control of the economy from the hands of merchants, analysts say.
Unable to feed its people, the government began allowing some markets in 2002, including farmers' markets.
The markets have encouraged trade but have also sold banned goods such as movies and soap operas from rival South Korea, posing a threat to Kim's totalitarian rule, analysts say. The country's largest wholesale market in Pyongyang was reportedly shut down in mid-June.