BANGKOK - 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.