A South Korean court has sentenced a man to prison for helping North Korean agents kidnap a South Korean Christian pastor in China. The case sheds light on what Christian groups say is a serious danger posed by North Korean operatives in China, and those trying to help them.
The court in Seoul convicted 35-year-old Ryu Young-hwa of helping North Korean agents abduct South Korean Christian pastor Kim Dong-shik. Reverend Kim disappeared in northern China in 2000 while helping North Koreans who had fled their country.
The court says Ryu helped the North Korean agents in return for payment. Ryu, a Chinese citizen of Korean ancestry, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Christian activists in Seoul think Reverend Kim died in North Korean custody. They view him as a symbol of the risks associated with helping North Koreans make the dangerous journey to South Korea through China via what has come to be known as the Christian underground railroad.
About 100,000 North Koreans are believed to be in China, having fled severe food shortages and repression at home. Many hope to travel on to South Korea. But China classifies the North Koreans as economic migrants, not refugees, and has an agreement with Pyongyang to send them back home, where they face harsh punishment or death.
Kim Bum-su works for the Christian-affiliated Commission to Help North Korean refugees. He says helping North Koreans in China is an extremely dangerous undertaking.
"One of the most risky things to work in China is fear, not of Chinese authorities, but of North Korean [agents]," said Kim Bum-su.
Mr. Kim says many North Korean agents are active in China and that some ethnic Koreans in China cooperate with the agents to make money.
He says even among refugees in China, there is a high degree of suspicion.
"Some of them are North Korean agents themselves," he said. "They pretend to be refugees in order to infiltrate into the community."
Tim Peters is a Christian activist with frequent contacts with missionaries operating in China.
"They are continually concerned for their own security, and we in turn have to respect that and gauge our activities accordingly," he said.
He calls the capture and conviction of Ryu Young-hwa in South Korea a "fluke." He says Ryu was only caught because a North Korean refugee in Seoul happened to recognize him.
"I do not think that it is the result of a strong and consistent commitment by the authorities in the South to find these people," he said. "I think it was handed to them on a silver platter."
South Korea's government maintains a policy of economic engagement and reconciliation with North Korea, under which it is hesitant to pursue the issue of Pyongyang's poor human rights record. Activist groups criticize the policy, saying Seoul has a duty to pressure China to ensure North Koreans are treated as refugees in accordance with international law.