News / Asia

China Cracks Down on Christian Groups Along N. Korea Border

FILE - A woman prays at Sheshan Cathedral in the outskirts of Shanghai, October 28, 2013.
FILE - A woman prays at Sheshan Cathedral in the outskirts of Shanghai, October 28, 2013.
Reuters

China is cracking down on Christian charity groups near its border with North Korea, missionaries and aid groups say, with hundreds of members of the community forced to leave the country and some who remain describing an atmosphere of fear.

The sweep along the frontier is believed to be aimed at closing off support to North Koreans who flee persecution and poverty in their homeland and illegally enter China before going on to other nations, usually ending up in South Korea.

The South says the number of such defections is showing signs of a slight slowdown this year.

Beijing has not charged anyone with any crime, but two sources with direct knowledge say a Korean-American man who ran a vocational school in the border town of Tumen was being investigated by Chinese authorities.

Earlier this month, China said it was investigating a Canadian couple who ran a coffee shop in Dandong city on suspicion of stealing state secrets.

As many as one third of the 3,000 South Korean missionaries working in China, largely near the North Korean border, have been forced out, most by having their visas refused, said Simon Suh, a Christian pastor who runs an orphanage in Yanji, a city near Tumen.

Many South Korean churches have been shut down, he said, quoting information he had received from several Christian groups in the region.

“Peter [Hahn]'s school in Tumen and Kevin Garratt's coffee shop were two organizations that were really well known,” said Suh. “Both of them being cracked down on is a huge blow to everyone, to every activist who is involved with North Korea.”

The missionaries in the remote and mountainous region are usually reserved, but during a recent visit by a Reuters reporter, they seemed especially fearful of speaking to outsiders and appeared to be worried about being followed by security forces.

South Korean and Western missionary groups run schools,  orphanages and cafes in the region and channel food and other aid into North Korea. But some of them have also been caught up in helping North Koreans who have fled their isolated country.

There was no firm evidence, however, that Hahn or the Garratts were involved in the so-called underground railroad, helping people escape from North Korea and clandestinely facilitating their journey to the South, usually through a third country.

Statistics released by South Korea's Ministry of Unification show the number of North Korean refugees to defect to the South has slightly decreased to about 700 in the first six months of the year, although it would be too soon for the crackdown to take full effect.

In the last two years, about 1,500 people have successfully made the journey each year.

“They have built more fencing, re-organized the border guards, increased punishments for failed escapees and have increased cooperation with the Chinese authorities to disrupt networks helping those who manage to escape,” said Sokeel Park of LiNK, an NGO that works with North Korean defectors.

“Obviously, the screw is tightening all along the border,” said a Christian activist in South Korea, who did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation. “There has been a concerted effort to break up the network of people who help North Koreans - on either side of the border.”

Another source working in the region said: “I believe that the D-Day has come or is coming soon for individuals, businesses and schools who have set up fronts to do North Korea-related humanitarian and refugee works.”

China's help

It was not immediately clear why China, North Korea's main ally and economic benefactor, was cracking down on missionaries in the region, but experts said it had cooperated with North Korea in the past along the border.

China's Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

While China can be suspicious of Christian groups and President Xi Jinping has launched a wide crackdown on underground churches, foreign missionaries usually operate without too much harassment.

Suh said a South Korean pastor who ran another orphanage for children of North Korean defectors had been detained and interrogated for weeks before being forced to leave the country this month.

Chinese staff employed by the pastor, who Suh asked Reuters not to name due to the sensitivity of the issue, had gone into hiding after threats from authorities.

Suh added he himself had been interrogated by authorities during a recent visit to the neighboring town of Hunchun.

The crackdown on the groups, many of which had been established in the region for years, has taken place over the last six months, foreign Christian sources working near the border told Reuters.

“There has been a mass exodus of South Korean missionaries,” said the owner of a Christian group business in Yanji. “Many organizations are pulling people out because they're scared, and certain blocks of people have just disappeared.”

Hahn, 74, runs a Christian NGO that sits a few blocks from the Tumen river, which faces the North Korean border town of Namyang. Chinese authorities have been interrogating him for weeks, and he has not been allowed to leave the country, sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

Marie Harf, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department in Washington, said she was aware of the reports about Hahn's questioning but could not comment further for reasons of privacy.

The issue could come up during a three-day visit to China by Robert King, the U.S. special envoy on human rights in North Korea. King's visit starts on Monday.

Hahn also co-owns a coffee shop called the Green Apple next door to the school, said Bob Grainger, his British business partner at the cafe.

Grainger said the cafe, which sells sweet buns and plays light South Korean pop songs, is functioning as normal, but that he did not know whether authorities would allow him to maintain his visa, up for renewal later this month.

“The Canadian case will tell us a lot about what to expect, we're looking to that,” Grainger said. “It's not directly related to us but it tells us about the attitude of the authorities.”

Grainger added that despite police visits, he regularly sees Hahn coming and going and that teachers and students are going about their business at the school, although there are no classes during summer.

Hahn had also visited the hospital to be treated for stress, a source with direct knowledge of the matter said.

Administrators were at work last week at the airy school, decorated with potted plants next to big windows, but Hahn was nowhere to be found.

“We're sorry, but the police will not allow the head of the school to see anybody,” a school administrator said. “Things are extremely tense at the moment.”

She said Hahn and other employees of the school could not answer further questions without seeking permission from the police.  

You May Like

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor warns of obesity’s worldwide health impact More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
X
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs