Friday, August 8, 2014

North Korea/China: Pyongyang, Beijing Collaborate in Stamping Out Religions That Proselytize

According to Reuters, a Korean-American who runs a Christian NGO in a Chinese city on the border with North Korea is being investigated by Chinese authorities and has had his bank accounts frozen, a source with direct knowledge of the case told the news agency on Thursday (August 7).

Peter Hahn, a naturalized US citizen, has been under interrogation by Chinese authorities for the last three weeks and is not permitted to leave the country.

A Canadian Christian couple who run a coffee shop in Dandong have had their financial counts frozen and been denied from leaving the country on suspicion they stole military secrets after Chinese and North Korean authorities put "2+2" together.

Several people working in the region said Hahn's case appeared to be part of a wider sweep of Christian-run NGOs and businesses along the Chinese side of the border with North Korea.

China can be suspicious of Christian groups and President Xi Jinping has launched a wide crackdown on "underground" churches. 

Peter Hahn runs a school for ethnic Korean children in the Chinese city of Tumen. Through his Tumen River Area Development Initiative (TRADI) NGO, also operates several humanitarian projects and joint venture companies inside North Korea, including a local bus service in the Rajin-Songbon (Rason) Special Economic Zone. 

COMMENT: Having spent most of working career abroad, my observations tell me that by that very few grass-roots, foreign religious groups have the attention to detail to do the following:

1. Retain legal counsel in hostile countries such as China and North Korea to ensure compliance with local laws governing foreign religions;

2. Retain all communications received from host government(s) and have a volunteer translate all documents with a noted suspense date;

3. Hostile foreign governments, particularly those that are cash-strapped, are fussy about the prompt payment of licenses, fees, etc.;

4. Most foreign religions operating in hostile, arbitrary countries are "Mom and Pop" operations. If they can't function profitably, they should leave the hostile nation they're operating in, hopefully before they're arrested; and

5. Be proactive and directly communicate with government ministries whose responsibility it is to regulate foreign religious sects.

US missionary Kenneth Bae, 46, sentenced by Pyongyang last year to 15 years hard labor for attempting to overthrow the state, operated businesses in Dandong and used his tour company, Nation Tours, to take foreign missionaries across the border into North Korea.

Sadly, the overt, intentional actions by Bae himself are a direct result of  why he is in a North Korean prison for 15 years.

Although the US Department of State is limited by the actions of US citizens who travel to China and North Korea and intentionally get themselves into legal trouble, the bottom-line is that the Department played NO role in Bae's plight:

Peter Hahn's company cars have been confiscated and his bank accounts frozen, the source said, adding that his NGO's humanitarian food shipments to North Korea had been suspended following the freezing of his accounts. 

The source said that Hahn was a Christian and was open about his faith. A description on its website said Hahn founded the NGO in 1997 to help North Korean refugees in Yanji, the capital of China's autonomous ethnic Korean region, a short drive from Tumen, where Hahn is based.

North Korea claims to support freedom of religion, but is ranked as one of the world's most oppressive regimes in terms of such freedom, and severely punishes citizens who veer from a state-sponsored ideology that venerates its leaders.

It was not immediately clear why China, North Korea's main ally and economic benefactor, was cracking down on missionaries in the region, but experts said it had cooperated with North Korea in the past along the border.

Many missionaries are drawn to the Rason SEZ, where foreigners, including US citizens, can gain a residence permit and set up joint venture companies with the local government.

Beyond tours, bakeries that produce small, nutritious buns that are distributed to school children and orphans in North Korean border cities are often set up by missionary groups in China, or in North Korea in cooperation with the North Korean authorities. 

The bakeries distribute much-needed food to impoverished North Korea, but critics argue such humanitarian aid is often deeply intertwined with religious conversation and salvation.

Hahn, who is based in California but has a residence permit for Rason, also runs a bakery, attached to the school, which has produced bread for North Korea since 2003.

Deliveries of bread from the bakery to North Korean children had been delayed by the freeze of Hahn's funds, the source said.

A proportion of Hahn's funding came from churches in South Korea. His school received money from Pohang Baptist Church in South Korea, according to a letter from the school's vice principal on the church's website.

As for Canadians Kevin Garratt and his wife, Julia Dawn Garratt, their detention came just a week after the Canadian government took the unusual step of singling out Chinese hackers for attacking a key computer network and lodged a protest with Beijing.

In response, China accused Canada of making irresponsible accusations that lacked credible evidence. 

In turn, the Garratts were detained  in China for the theft of state secrets,which could earn both of them a life sentence in prison or even the death penalty.

Peter Hahn is a different issue, I think it's more related to his faith and the work he was doing," said David Etter, who was recently forced to close his Christian-run Western restaurant in Yanji, citing a lack of patrons.