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A Lame-Duck Moon Can Fix South Korea’s Refugee Failings

Persecuted Chinese Christians deserve asylum from Seoul.

By , a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.
A pastor speaks during a online Christmas service from the Yoido Full Gospel Church on December 25, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea.
A pastor speaks during a online Christmas service from the Yoido Full Gospel Church on December 25, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea.
A pastor speaks during a online Christmas service from the Yoido Full Gospel Church on December 25, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

South Korea has chosen a new president after a narrow and highly contentious election. The ideological and generational divide in the country may be even greater than in the United States. Yet one of the most striking features of Korean politics is a hostility to refugees—even on the left.

Seoul has been denying asylum to Chinese Christians, who face certain persecution if forced to return to China. It was a particularly bizarre stance for outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s government to take, given the significant number of Christians in South Korea. Indeed, Christian churches and organizations have actively aided North Korean refugees escaping through China.

A decade ago, religious persecution was easing in China, which had dropped down the World Watch List, an annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the most persecution. However, China began a rapid rise in 2019 and now ranks at 17, up from 43 just four years ago. Under Xi Jinping, Beijing has greatly intensified persecution against all faiths, including Buddhism and Daoism. The existing religious institutions have been brought under the aegis of the United Front, the arm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) charged with maintaining control over religious society. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its report on conditions in China in 2020, cited the “unprecedented use of advanced surveillance technologies to monitor and track religious minorities.”

South Korea has chosen a new president after a narrow and highly contentious election. The ideological and generational divide in the country may be even greater than in the United States. Yet one of the most striking features of Korean politics is a hostility to refugees—even on the left.

Seoul has been denying asylum to Chinese Christians, who face certain persecution if forced to return to China. It was a particularly bizarre stance for outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s government to take, given the significant number of Christians in South Korea. Indeed, Christian churches and organizations have actively aided North Korean refugees escaping through China.

A decade ago, religious persecution was easing in China, which had dropped down the World Watch List, an annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the most persecution. However, China began a rapid rise in 2019 and now ranks at 17, up from 43 just four years ago. Under Xi Jinping, Beijing has greatly intensified persecution against all faiths, including Buddhism and Daoism. The existing religious institutions have been brought under the aegis of the United Front, the arm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) charged with maintaining control over religious society. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its report on conditions in China in 2020, cited the “unprecedented use of advanced surveillance technologies to monitor and track religious minorities.”

The situation continued to worsen last year. As World Watch Research, the analytics unit of the Christian watchdog Open Doors that publishes the World Watch List, recently reported.

“The policy of ‘Sinicizing’ the church is implemented across the country as the Communist Party is relying strongly on Chinese cultural identity to stay in control, limiting whatever could threaten its hold on power. New restrictions on Internet, social media, NGOs and the 2018 regulations on religion (with its extension in 2020 and 2021) are or are going to be strictly applied and all seriously limit freedom. Likewise, already existing laws are being implemented more strictly. … The old truth that churches would only be perceived as being a threat if they became too large, too political or by inviting foreign guests, has become an unreliable guideline today. Many churches are being monitored and closed down, no matter whether they are independent or belong to the [government-monitored] Three-Self Patriotic Movement.”

House churches—independent congregations that often meet in a commercial space—suffer especially harshly since they operate outside of the state’s purview and sometimes even knowledge. Pan Yongguang established the Shenzhen Holy Reformed Church a decade ago. Having received assistance from a church in the United States, Pan received special scrutiny. As Bob Fu and Arielle Del Turco wrote last October: “By 2014, authorities were interrogating him at least twice a week and trying to persuade him to join the Chinese Communist Party-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement.” The government later stopped him from traveling overseas to attend theology classes. The CCP also forced the church’s landlord to shut down the elementary school it had been running, frustrating parents who sought to protect their children from the government’s increasingly overt indoctrination efforts.

Pan explained the rationale for leaving China: “Our church would educate our children about our religious beliefs, and the police would come along and force them to enroll in school so they could be brainwashed.” Moreover, “They didn’t want us to teach our children the Bible, and children are banned from attending church. This went against our faith and our consciences.” Chen Jingjing, a member of the church and former factory worker, observed: “All day, from morning to night, it’s all Xi Jinping—more and more, it stands in opposition to faith.” In late 2019, church members voted to flee en masse, flying to South Korea’s Jeju Island as tourists.

Life in South Korea has been difficult for church members, who now use the name Mayflower Church. They don’t speak Korean and have had difficulty finding work. Some have come to question their decision. However, Pan argued, “There’s no way back for us.”

Although Pan and his about 60 congregants are not political and posed no threat to the Chinese state, their decision embarrassed the Xi regime. So in Jeju, Chinese consulate staff have repeatedly called church members. Moreover, the human rights group CSW reported, “several church members, including Pastor Pan, have received threatening phone calls from unknown persons while in Jeju.” Worse has been the fate of church members still in China, who “have been placed under surveillance and interrogated by police, while at least one person who was denied entry to Jeju has been placed under ‘Residential Surveillance’ and is not permitted to leave her home.”

It is not hard to envision the reception Mayflower refugees will face if forcibly repatriated to China. In 2018, Pan joined his friend Wang Yi, who pastored an unregistered 500-member home church, and 456 other house church pastors in signing a statement protesting rising persecution. Later that year, the authorities detained Wang and some 100 members after raiding a Sunday evening service. In 2019, he was tried and sentenced to nine years in prison for “subversion of state power.”

Wang’s arrest spurred Pan to seek religious freedom elsewhere. Now Pan faces similar charges in China. He explained: “I have been charged with subversion of state power, colluding with anti-China foreign forces, and human trafficking.” The latter is “because I took these believers out of China, so now I’m suspected of trafficking or smuggling them.”

The theologian Apollos Bell and China Partnership blog editor E.F. Gregory noted that “the charge of subversion of state power [is] a catchall charge that is often used against political activists. The trafficking charge is due to Pan’s leadership of his church as they crossed national borders to seek refuge overseas. Life will likely also be difficult for the other members of his church, who in all likelihood would also face interrogation, surveillance, harassment, and, in some cases, imprisonment.”

Unfortunately, last June the Moon government denied the church members’ request for asylum. The government presumably failed to recognize a danger to the refugees’ lives or health but refused to publicly specify the reason for its decision. Several appeals followed. In late January, the Gwangju High Court rejected their final asylum appeal. They now face imminent deportation. Unless another country steps in, most likely the United States, they could be sent back to China.

The incoming government of Yoon Suk-yeol should intervene, or else Moon should handle the issue before leaving office. South Korea’s asylum process is notoriously tough. However, the Chinese government’s rising onslaught against religious freedom leaves no doubt that the Mayflower’s members will suffer greatly if forced back to China. Moon has been thwarted in his desire to achieve peace with North Korea before leaving office. Taking a stand for human rights and against China would be a worthy substitute legacy as his term ends.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World. Twitter: @Doug_Bandow

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