Korean church and repatriation issue
Recently, there have been vigorous protests led by right wing evangelical churches against the Chinese government for its repatriation of North Korean refugees. In the United States, it is led by a consortium of conservative churches called the Korean Church Coalition. Let us examine how the problem of repatriation started, whether the protests are helping North Korean refugees, and what is the real purpose behind it.
The repatriation problem started around 2002 after a series of highly politicized and publicized North Korean refugees storming foreign embassies in China ― especially the Spanish Embassy in March 2002 ― orchestrated by right wing political and Christian groups. Instead of helping the refugees, these events led to crackdowns and repatriation since the Chinese government tried to solve the problem by sending them back to the North. Prior to 2002, the Chinese government was aware of the large presence of refugees along the North Korean-Chinese border but did not repatriate them. Instead, it turned a blind eye so they could work and come and go more or less freely since it viewed them as neighbors in need. In a sense, the groups that are currently protesting against the Chinese government are the very ones that should bear responsibility for the repatriations.
Current high-profile campaigns to force the Chinese government not to repatriate refugees are not likely to succeed. Beijing is well known not to budge under pressure. The Chinese government already told the Korean administration not to politicize and sensationalize the issue and try to resolve it quietly with the long-term goal of maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
Those who are orchestrating current high-profile protest campaigns are aware that the Chinese government will not change its position. Then, what is the real reason behind the protests? Obviously, there exist manipulations by political groups. For South Korean conservatives, this refugee issue is a convenient tool to attack progressive South Korean groups. For the U.S government, the refugees’ rights issue is a convenient tool to tarnish China's image and drive a wedge between South Koreans and Chinese, so that the South stays firmly under American tutelage to contain China's rise and influence in East Asia.
However, for South Korean evangelicals the main reason is the desire to do missionary work in North Korea. Due to China's support for North Korea and repatriation, the South’s evangelicals are prevented from reaching out to North Koreans. This causes anger and a desire to avenge China. This desire to carry out missionary work in the North is in a way a selfish one, in the sense that it is not designed to help the plight of North Korean refugees who are in need of work and want to be able to move freely in China or seek refuge in a third country. As stated, high-profile campaigns have led to crackdowns and made peoples’ lives more difficult.
But why such urgency and zeal for missionary work in North Korea? I believe the main reason is due to the failure and decline of Protestant churches within South Korea. The number of Protestants peaked around the mid 1990s at about 9 million and since then it has been in a steady decline. While the Catholic Church has grown 70 percent over the last decade (from around 3 million to 5 million), the number of Protestants has declined by about 10 percent to 8 million. Catholics will be the largest Christian group in the short time and to Protestant churches, the urge to proselytize North Koreans gains more urgency by the day.
It is no coincidence that the timing of its extensive overseas missions by South Korean Protestant churches in the 1990s coincides with their decline. Unable and unwilling to reform to slow the decline, Protestant churches turned to other countries to perform missionary work. And the desperate desire to reach out to North Koreans has to be seen in this light. This desire for missionary work in the North is a form of escapism since it does not really solve the problem of declining congregations within the South.
Therefore, the task for the Protestant churches is to examine what went wrong and to reform before trying to reach outside the nation. Instead of engaging in foreign policy adventure in front of Chinese diplomatic missions and intensifying attempts to do missionary work in North Korea, they needs to do some soul searching. Protestant churches have to be born again and for this one has to acknowledge the need for it. If not, Korean Protestant churches will be like their brethrens Christians in Europe, a dustbin of history.
Roberto Hong is an attorney living in Los Angeles.