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.
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.
“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.
“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.”