It is not immediately clear why China, North Korea’s main ally and economic benefactor, is cracking down on missionaries in the region at this time, though experts said it had cooperated with North Korea in the past along the border.
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.
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.
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 is being investigated by Chinese authorities. And 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.
“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.”
The issue could come up during a three-day visit to China by Robert King, the US special envoy on human rights in North Korea. King’s visit starts on Monday.