It seems like just another story about missionaries to North Korea. Then you realize that this Associated Press story is about North Koreans who somehow escape their country to take refuge in China, then return to their native land to secretly convert other North Koreans to Christianity. That's a new angle.
These stories are not easy to get. First, you have to have contacts in an obscure corner of northeast China who will talk with you. You also need decent translators who understand religious terms.
Then you need to connect the dots between the North Korean government and a group of determined Christians just across the Chinese border. So as you read this, look for signs of research, the sources for facts and insights.
Also, notice the life-and-death stakes. This is dangerous territory. The further you read on, the better the plot gets.
SOUTHERN JILIN PROVINCE, China (AP) -- To the North Koreans gathered beneath a crucifix in an apartment in this northeastern Chinese border region, she is known as “mom.” She feeds them, gives them a place to stay and, on occasion, money.
In return, the 69-year-old Korean-Chinese woman asks them to study the Bible, pray and sing hymns. She also has a more ambitious, and potentially dangerous, goal: She wants the most trusted of her converts to return to North Korea and spread Christianity there.
Along the North Korean border, dozens of such missionaries are engaged in work that puts them and their North Korean converts in danger. Most are South Koreans, but others, like the woman, are ethnic Koreans whose families have lived in China for generations. In recent years, 10 such front-line missionaries and pastors have died mysteriously, according to the Rev. Kim Kyou Ho, head of the Seoul-based Chosen People Network, a Christian group that runs a memorial hall in the South Korean capital for the victims. North Korea is suspected in all those deaths.
We’re then told why this secret missionizing might be of interest to the greater world at large.
It is perilous work. Li Baiguang, a Chinese human rights lawyer whose work defending Christian pastors and farmers had prompted repeated death threats, died on Feb. 26, hours after being admitted to a Chinese military hospital for what his relatives described as a minor stomach ailment.
The case has prompted calls for an independent investigation from Amnesty International and the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, which noted Li had been “detained and physically attacked many times” for his work and cited reports he had recently appeared to be in good health…
Yes, there are real foreign policy issues at stake.
The border missionaries provide their North Korean visitors with room and board, and those escaping with places to hide. In return, they ask them to memorize the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed and other prayers. Some of the most trusted converts return home to North Korea and covertly share what they’ve learned, sometimes carrying Bibles.
It’s almost impossible to determine what happens when those North Koreans return home to evangelize. From the outside, there is no indication that Christianity has grown in any serious manner in the North in recent years, let alone that it’s helping shake North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s power.
Is this a matter of life and death? We hear of the Rev. Han Chung-ryeol, a Chinese pastor mysteriously ending up dead of stab wounds two years ago and of suspects who fled into North Korea, where the government refuses to extradite them to Chinese police.
Then we hear of how Han helped convert thousands of North Koreans who’d fled into China, trying to escape the famine and gulag-like conditions in their homeland.
What’s so intriguing in all this is the news that the North Korean authorities fear that if their people are converted to Christianity, that will destabilize their government. The fact that everything from the Arab spring to the Orange Revolution may have had more to do with Twitter than religion escapes them. Then again, maybe they’re looking further back into the last century where the Catholic Church played a major role in the fall of communism in Poland.
The story has a good mix of anonymous North Korean interviewees and some South Koreans who give the reader a good idea of the missionary activity going on underground near the North Korean/Chinese border.
I’m drawing attention to this article, because it’s quite tough to get good reporting about missionaries of any sort in the secular media. I usually read this type of article in religious publications.
Needless the say, it’s also hard to get reputable coverage of the covert assassinations the North Koreans are wont to do on Chinese soil of certain people they don’t like.
One of the authors of this piece, Gerry Shih, works out of AP’s Beijing bureau and seems to have a knack for religion topics. He just finished an impressive series of articles on China’s Muslim Uyghur minority. His report on the ruthless persecution of Uyghurs by the Chinese government makes North Korea look good in comparison.
North Korea's habit of abducting people in China isn't a totally new story. This piece in La Stampa several years ago talked about the same thing. And this story estimates the number of South Korean missionaries in China number at least 1,000. And this story also talks about Chinese pastors who specialize in evangelizing North Koreans.
One more thing about these stories that have lots of anonymous quotes and assumed names: The reporter knows far more than what he or she can write about. So, if you’re amazed at this article, consider what else might be going on that the reporter cannot tell you for fear of harming many people.