Scores of missionaries are operating on the border between China and North Korea, engaged in social outreach and evangelisation. At least ten have died with suspicions pointing to Pyongyang. Others have been expelled or detained in China. Han Chung-ryeol, the "martyr" of Changbai, is one of them.
Beijing (AsiaNews/AP) – Scores of missionaries risk their lives every day on the border between China and North Korea to spread the Gospel and help North Koreans. Most of them are South Koreans, but some are ethnic Korean who have lived in China for generations.
Their lives are permanently at risk. In recent years, ten missionaries have died under mysterious circumstances, this according to Rev Kim Kyou Ho (pictured), head of the Chosen People Network, a Christian group based in Seoul.
North Korea is suspected in some of the cases. In hundreds more, missionaries have been imprisoned in or expelled from China, which bans proselytising by foreigners.
One of the missionaries, a Korean-Chinese woman who asked her name not be used to protect her family, said that she is monitored by both the Chinese and North Korean authorities, yet is willing to pursue her work. “I always pray and I’m with God, so I’m not worried,” she said.
Border missionaries help North Korean visitors with accommodations or hiding places, and in return ask them to memorise some prayers.
Some of their most trusted converts go back to North Korea to share what they have learnt, sometimes bringing Bibles with them. It is impossible to know what happens to them once they return.
From the outside, there is nothing to suggest that Christianity has developed at all in North Korea.
For their part, North Korean authorities accuse South Korean intelligence of using missionaries to collect information about North Korea’s nuclear programme. At least two South Korean pastors are currently detained in North Korea on such a charge.
Officially, North Korea says it guarantees freedom of religion to its 24 million people. In reality, anyone involved in Bible distribution, secret prayer services or underground church networks are put in prison or executed.
Five government-sanctioned churches exist in Pyongyang, showpiece facilities open only for foreign visitors.
Rev Han Chung-ryeol, a Korean-Chinese pastor, is among the people who died under mysterious circumstances in recent years. He headed a front-line church in the Chinese border town of Changbai before he was axed to death in April 2016.
North Korea denied any involvement in the murder, bud did send a letter to the State Religious Affairs Bureau in Changbai saying it had arrested one of Han’s church deacons, Zhang Wenshi, and sentenced him to 15 years hard labour for conspiring with Han to evangelise North Koreans, smuggle them out of the country and subvert the North Korean regime.
Han began evangelising among North Koreans in the 1990s. He fed and sheltered thousands of them, converting hundreds to Christianity. According to some sources, he also helped some North Koreans flee the country.
Some defectors warned him of the risk he was facing, that he was at the top of North Korea’s most wanted list.
As for the congregants Han left behind, their sentiments are reflected in the message on a banner they hung on the front gate of their red-brick church in Changbai: “Martyr and pastor, Han Chung-ryeol is our pride!”