SEOUL, South Korea -- An aid group says North Korea has publicly executed 15 people who attempted to flee the country or helped others escape.
The executions are a warning aimed at stemming the growing flow of refugees to China.
The Good Friends private aid organization says in its regular newsletter that the two men and 13 women were executed Feb. 20 by firing squad on a bridge in Onseong, a northeastern town on the border with China and Russia.
The aid agency says they were accused of crossing the Tumen River into neighbouring China or helping others to cross.
A growing number of North Koreans cross into China in search of food and to avoid political oppression.
Activists claim tens of thousands of North Koreans live in hiding in China, where they face forced repatriation to their impoverished homeland if caught.
Others try to make it to South Korea. Since the 1950-53 Korean War, 12,250 North Koreans have fled to the South, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry.
The North carried out the recent executions as a warning against illegal border crossings to China, Good Friends said, citing an unnamed North Korean official.
The execution "has further stirred the public (unrest) ... and made people upset at a time when all people were worried as there were nothing to eat,'' the group quoted an unnamed woman in the town as saying.
The aid agency declined to say how it obtained the information, citing its sensitivity.
Some of the group's previous reports regarding the North have later been confirmed.