Chinese crackdown on missionaries to the North Koreans

Conditions in China have never been easy for foreign missionaries, and most try to keep a low profile. They work for so many different organizations and denominations that numbers are hard to come by. But from interviews with nearly a dozen former and active missionaries, experts and academics it’s clear at least hundreds – perhaps nearly 1,000 – have been forced out of China.

In early 2013, at the peak, China was home to some 2,000 to 4,000 missionaries from South Korea alone; U.S. missionaries made up large numbers as well.

The forced departures form the background to the detention a little more than two weeks ago of Canadians Kevin and Julia Garratt, a  Christian couple who had run a coffee shop in Dandong, a Chinese city on the North Korean border. Chinese authorities have accused them of stealing state secrets, but said little about what they have done wrong. Canadian officials believe their detention is likely China’s response to allegations of Chinese espionage in North America, including by a Canadian immigrant who is accused of co-ordinating hacking attacks to steal U.S. fighter jet secrets.

Yet the Garratts also stood at a dangerous nexus of issues that stir Chinese suspicion, by virtue of their personal faith, their humanitarian work with North Korea and the donations from Canadian churchgoers that supported them. That background almost certainly attracted the attention of authorities, though it may not be the primary reason for the couple’s detention.

China is North Korea’s closest ally, but the two nuclear powers still operate with great of mutual suspicion, and the Garratts live in a place that is the focus of intense Chinese military and intelligence scrutiny. Some of that is directed at Christian missionaries who play a critical role in the underground railroad that secrets North Korean defectors out of China.

“If you are a North Korean in China, the only place where you can realistically be given food and shelter is a church,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar and expert on North Korea. Often, that means the involvement of missionaries, who “actively proselytize among the North Korean refugees,” and train them in spreading Christianity inside North Korea.

The eviction of missionaries is in some ways a mark of China’s own perceived global strength, as an increasingly confident Beijing seeks to define China, an atheist state with government-run churches, on its own terms. Yet it also threatens to revive a point of conflict between China and Western nations, which have long criticized the Communist country for its refusal to allow free pursuit of religion.

[Globe and Mail]

The Church in North Korea

North Korea’s cryptic response to the Pope’s visit to Seoul is emblematic of the nation’s complicated relationship with religion in general. Its constitution formally grants citizens religious freedom, but in reality, religious practice is punishable by public execution or banishment to the nation’s kwan-li-so prison camps.

The few churches in Pyongyang are maintained by the state in order to give the appearance of religious practice; congregants are actors bussed in to services for the benefit of tourists.

It hasn’t always been this way. North Korea actually has a long history with Christianity. Catholic missionaries first arrived on the Korean Peninsula in 1784. There, prominent Korean Studies historian Andrei Lankov reports, the Church took root with such success that by the 1920s, Pyongyang was known among missionaries as “the Jerusalem of the East.” Kim Il-sung himself grew up in a Christian household, and was reportedly a church organist as a teenager.

In her book Escape from North Korea, journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick writes of North Korea’s underground church. Figures reporting on the size of such organizations are inherently subject to inaccuracy, but her estimate puts their number at 200,000 to 400,000 adherents, somewhere around 1% of North Korea’s population.

Though their numbers are small, Christians in North Korea are important for at least two key reasons. First, they are faithful in quiet opposition to an ideology of state propaganda that amounts to a religion of dictator worship. The modest ideological diversity they represent is anathema to authoritarianism and may constitute the seeds of a freer future North Korea.

Second, Christians are key actors in what Kirkpatrick calls Asia’s underground railroad – a network of safe houses that help North Korean defectors escape to China and beyond. Defectors’ testimonies bring to light the heinous human rights abuses of the Kim regime, which will eventually oblige the international community to respond. The defectors also reach out to their family and friends in North Korea with reports of the outside world, exposing what the state propaganda calls “paradise on earth” for the hellish prison it really is.

[Huffington Post]

After fleeing North Korea

The academic work of Professor Clifton Emery, a lecturer at Seoul’s Yonsei University, focuses on the power that social groups and communities wield over the specter of child abuse, and as part of a wider study he is currently interviewing 200 North Korean defectors to examine the risks they face in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder and family violence.

This work has put him in contact with the underground railroad, a network of smugglers and NGOs working to bring North Koreans to safety via a shadowy route that snakes from China to Southeast Asia and finally to Seoul. Many of these refugees are women, who willingly sell themselves as brides to rural Chinese men and then wait, often bearing several children to their husbands, until the opportunity for escape presents itself.

It has also brought Emery close to the aid workers – a handful of Israelis among them – who help the process along. One of his closest Jewish friends these days is Yotam Polizer, the Israeli serving as Asia Director for the NGO IsraAid, which offers trauma care training and workshops. IsraAid has offered training to the counselors and therapists who serve as refugees’ first contacts when they make it to South Korea and to the government-run Hanowan Resettlement Center that sits in the hills south of Seoul. There, the refugees learn the bare bones of democracy, free speech, and capitalism. They are taught that they can say whatever they wish about their government and practice any religion they choose. It’s a paradigm shift of massive proportions.

This evening two dozen aid workers and psychology students gather together in a lecture hall to discuss the intricacies of trauma and how they can identify, salve and treat the emotional wounds of shell-shocked North Korean defectors. Much of that work focuses on nonverbal treatment, be it through art, music, or movement, allowing survivors of the North Korean regime to express themselves without the burden of a written record.

Such a cross-section of humanitarians, Emery says, is typical. “The people doing the work and defectors themselves are all over the map politically,” he says. “You have fundamentalist Christians and you have very secular professional Western organizations and you have IsraAid. What we share in common is a sense of the absolute urgency of this crisis.”

It’s really a question, Emery says, of how much we believe in the term “never again.” He says, “I grew up hearing stories of the Holocaust and hoping that if I had been alive at that time I would have had the moral fortitude to do something. I simply cannot look myself in the mirror and not do something. It’s just a very simple response of the heart.”

[Times of Israel]

Christians help North Koreans escape

A new underground railroad run significantly by Christians has formed to help North Koreans escape their oppressive regime, Hudson Institute senior fellow Melanie Kirkpatrick told The Daily Caller.

“The new underground railroad is a secret network of safe houses and escape routes that carries North Koreans across China to safety in neighboring countries,” said Kirkpatrick. “Two groups of people operate the new underground railroad,” she continued, “brokers, who are in it for the money, and humanitarian workers — especially Christians — who are in it to serve God.”

“It is against Chinese law to assist North Koreans, and anyone who helps them is subject to arrest, prison, and, if he’s a foreigner, expulsion. I profile several American Christians who help. They operate safe houses, they run orphanages, and they lead North Koreans out of China. These people are brave and incredibly inspiring.”

“There are also secret Christian missionaries in North Korea. These usually are North Koreans who were converted in China and now feel the call to go home and evangelize, and who are planting secret new churches in the North.”

Kirkpatrick says escaping North Korea is no easy task. “Anyone who wants to escape needs large measures of courage, determination and luck,” she said. “The only practical escape route is through China — across the Yalu or Tumen River. North Koreans who cross the river to China can be shot in the back by North Korean border guards.”

Underground Railroad sowing seeds for change within North Korea

“China refuses to let the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees or any other international aid group help North Koreans [who escape North Korea.  Instead China repatriates them to North Korea where they are killed.] …This is an indictment of China.”

It is a crime to leave North Korea. Yet increasing numbers of North Koreans dare to flee. They go first to neighboring China, which rejects them as criminals, then on to Southeast Asia or Mongolia, and finally to South Korea, the United States, and other free countries.

The conductors on the new underground railroad are Christians who are in it to serve God, while others are brokers who are in it for the money. The Christians see their mission as the liberation of North Korea one person at a time.

Just as escaped slaves from the American South educated Americans about the evils of slavery, the North Korean fugitives are informing the world about the secretive country they fled.

The New Underground Railroad describes how they also are sowing the seeds for change within North Korea itself. Once they reach sanctuary, the escapees channel news back to those they left behind. In doing so, they are helping to open their information-starved homeland, exposing their countrymen to liberal ideas, and laying the intellectual groundwork for the transformation of the totalitarian regime that keeps their fellow citizens in chains.

With a journalist’s grasp of events and a novelist’s ear for narrative, Melanie Kirkpatrick tells the story of the North Koreans’ quest for liberty. Click here to order the book from Amazon

Escaping North Korea via the Underground Railroad

More than 150 years ago, in antebellum America, the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses, allowed slaves to escape to freedom. Today a similar network has been created by humanitarian groups and Christian missionaries, as well as by unscrupulous smugglers and brokers, to help North Koreans escape their modern-day slave state—a place where freedom of speech, religion and movement are all forbidden and where some 200,000 inmates are held in Stalinist gulags.

The escapees include North Korean women who have been sold to brothels as prostitutes or to Chinese farmers as brides against their will; defectors carrying state secrets; and ordinary men, women and children fleeing in search of food and a better life.

To trace the harrowing journey that refugees must undergo: first making their way across the border with China (which means traversing a major river and getting past numerous checkpoints and guards) and then making a long and risky trek across China to reach another country, usually in Southeast Asia, from which, if they are lucky, they find safe haven in South Korea or the West. The unlucky refugees, caught by the Chinese, are forcibly sent back.

The stories are just as moving for the Korean women who have been sold into prostitution or forced marriages in China. Their “half-and-half children” by Chinese men are unable to attend school or obtain medical care and may be “ripped from their mothers’ arms by Chinese policemen” and then abandoned if their Korean mothers are arrested and repatriated to North Korea. Pregnant women repatriated to the North suffer a special hell: “For the perceived crime of carrying ‘Chinese seed,’ their North Korean jailers force the repatriated women to undergo abortions, even in the final weeks of pregnancy.”

In all, some 24,000 North Koreans have thus far managed to flee to safety, and tens of thousands more are currently hiding in enclaves in northeastern China, under threat of repatriation by the Chinese regime. This new underground railroad is “a rare good-news story that foretells a happier future for that sad country.”

–From Sue Mi Terry’s book review of Melanie Kirkpatrick’s “Escape From North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad” 

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