07/20/2012 North Korea (SINONK) - In Yanbian, Protestant Christians are at the lead in operating at the Sino-North Korean border, providing a channel for North Korean defectors on the run. According to Dong-A Ilbo, churches making up this network are being targeted by Chinese public officials in light of shifting leadership in both China and the DPRK; assuring stability during the transition. Dong-A-Ilbo’s above article says thishas led to 400-500 missionaries being deported in recent months.The deportation of missionaries is not a new phenomenon in the region, but it does appear to be accelerated. Dating back to 2008, the US State Department reported the closure of churches in Yanbian with a focus on rooting out any religious organization with foreign contacts, primarily South Korean or American.
While Christians in Yanbian seem to be at the focus of most media attention to the issue, Dandong is also home to a bustling Christian community which merits attention. According to statistics provided by the Christian group Asia Harvest, there are nearly 8,000 Christians who attend public worship weekly, the same report says there are 16,000 practicing in house churches. According to one report, there are approximately 600,000 Christians in Liaoning Province as a whole.
However, it is the collective efforts of groups, not individual religious practitioners that are seen as most troublesome by the CCP and DPRK. Amongst the active players on the border are groups such as Helping Hands Korea, a Christian based group founded in South Korea in 1999. Their website lists their activities as providing foster homes for North Korean children whose mothers have been repatriated, assisting refugees make their way to the so-called “underground railroad” and sending food inside North Korea. Another, Durihana, a mission founded by Chun Ki-Won, a pastor arrested in 2002 on his way to Mongolia with North Korean defectors, has been active in getting refugees to neighboring countries such as Mongolia and Vietnam. Groups such as these have formed an informal network of underground churches that work to move refugees from North Korea to China and to a third country such as South Korea or Mongolia.
Policy has been implemented in the region that proactively tries to gain intelligence on the activities of these groups in order to deter defector traffic that poses problems for both countries. There have been some reports of fake churches being created by North Korean state agents to become part of the network, or North Korean agents behaving as refugees to receive aid from missionary groups and subsequently an understanding of their inner-workings (Prison Without Bars, 49). Amid the overall astonishment at the bizarreness of the DPRK’s celebratory treatment of “returned refugee” Pak Song-juk, it might be added that the state intelligence service were surely quite interested in the specific names of those who had helped her escape into China and South Korea.
The increased pressure has led to mysterious deaths and assassination attempts seemingly from a cold-war spy movie. On May 30th, 2012 Kang Ho-Bin, a South Korean Protestant Pastor was killed in a head-on car crash at 2 PM in the afternoon in Dandong on his way to church. The accident, about which Chinese officials have remained mum, comes after an assassination attempt years earlier on him when he was pricked with a poison-filled needle. Kang Ho-Bin’s death is not the first case of a missionary in the area dying under suspicious circumstances. In 2011, Barbara Demick reported for the LA Times a South Korean missionary in Dandong died while waiting for a taxi; some speculated that poison was the cause of death.