Christians Jailed for Aiding North Korean Refugees in China

Monday, August 18, 2003

Four South Koreans Sentenced for Clandestine Humanitarian Activities
by Willy Fautre

SEOUL (Compass) -- Two South Korean pastors and two laymen, imprisoned in China because of their pastoral and humanitarian work among North Korean refugees, await court decisions on their fate.

For the past seven years, Rev. Choi Bong Il, a veteran pastor of the Church of Holiness in South Korea, a denomination close to the Presbyterian Church, has been involved in clandestine humanitarian and missionary activities in China. Choi has organized partnerships between Protestant churches in South Korea and ethnic Korean churches in China to train church leaders and missionaries.

On April 12, 2002, about 100 armed police surrounded his apartment in Yangji, northern China. Choi refused to open the door because he was in possession of train tickets belonging to North Korean defectors who were about to leave for Mongolia. Using long ladders, the police managed to enter through the window and arrest Choi, whom they charged with organizing an illegal border crossing.

His trial, first scheduled for October 29, 2002, was postponed until December 5, 2003, in violation of Chinese law, which stipulates that the maximum custody period without trial may not exceed six months. It took place in the Autonomous State of Yangbien, where Korean is an official language along with Chinese.

At the trial, Mrs. Oh Kap Soon talked with her husband for about 20 minutes in the visiting room of the prison. “The atmosphere was very tense,” she told Compass. “A guard who could understand Korean was present all the time. We were not allowed to speak about prison conditions or the trial.”

No verdict has been issued on Choi’s case in the eight months since the trial, even though the waiting period for a judgment must not exceed 45 days, by law.

Kim Hee-tae, 32, is an active Presbyterian and a graduate from the church’s Theological Faculty in Seoul. For several years, he defended the rights of Chinese migrant workers who were unfairly treated by South Korean employers.

Last year, Kim enrolled in New York’s Columbia University to pursue studies in social welfare. In July 2002, he decided to go to China for a summer vacation.

While escorting six North Korean defectors from Yanji to Beijing, Kim was arrested and charged with organizing an illegal border crossing. Detained for over eight months without trial, he was eventually tried on May 15 in the city of Yanji. He is still awaiting sentence.

Other pending cases involve two South Korean lay Christians, Choi Yong Hun and Seok Jae-huyn, sentenced last spring to five and two years respectively for aiding North Korean refugees who sought to leave China.

During frequent trips to China, Presbyterian Choi Yong Hun, 41, a real estate consultant, became aware of the desperate plight of North Korean refugees. Choi decided to help a group of six refugees leave the country on January 18, 2003. He was arrested while awaiting their arrival at a railway station in the city of Yantai.

“He did not tell us anything about the operation, and I thought it was for his work,” his wife told Compass recently. “I waited anxiously for three days but he did not show up. It was through the newspapers that I heard about what had happened to him.”

On April 22, a Chinese judge sentenced Choi Yong Hun to five years in prison and fined him 30,000 yuan ($4,000) for organizing an illegal border crossing. Jailed in Yantai prison with no visitors or exchange of correspondence allowed, Choi has appealed the judgment.

Last January, South Korean free-lance journalist Seok Jae-huyn called his wife in Japan to tell her he would go to China to cover a “boat-people operation.” He was aboard the Dalien-Yantai ferryboat on January 18 with a number of North Korean defectors when police arrested him.

Tried after four months of detention, Seok Jae-huyn was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 5,000 yuan, despite the fact he was not involved in the boat-people operation but was covering the event as a reporter. He is now awaiting an appeal hearing.

Seok Jae-huyn and his wife, both active in the Presbyterian Church in South Korea, have been married for two and a half years.

Up to 300,000 North Korean defectors are believed to live clandestinely in China. South Korean, Japanese and Chinese Christians risk their own freedom to provide the refugees with humanitarian aid and teach them about the Christian faith.

North Korean refugees who are forcibly repatriated to their country automatically go to prison. Once there, they are interrogated about contacts they might have had with missionaries in China, aware that they will be executed without appeal if such links are discovered.

Criticized by humanitarian organizations for failing to aid North Koreans who flee famine and oppression to China, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has promised to take steps to stop their forced repatriation to North Korea.