Two South Korean pastors have been arrested by Chinese authorities for helping to smuggle North Korean defectors out of China to avoid being deported back to their country.
One of the pastors was arrested with his wife last month while they were boarding a flight to South Korea in China's eastern city of Qingdao. The other was apprehended with his wife at a hotel in the northeastern city of Qinhuangdao. The two pastors are still detained, but their wives have been released.
Peter Jung, chief of the Seoul-based human rights group Justice for North Korea, said that the pastors admitted during the interrogation that they helped the defectors because they would face inhumane treatment from North Korea if they were deported.
An official at Seoul's foreign ministry said that the missionaries are being held at a detention center in Liaoning Province.
"Our consulate general in Shenyang has held meetings with our (detained) nationals and provided practical consular assistance, including information on hiring a lawyer and requesting humanitarian treatment from the Chinese public safety authorities. We will continue to provide consular help," said the official, as reported by Yonhap News.
The news of the arrests follows a series of detentions and expulsions of South Korean missionaries from Jilin, a northeastern province bordering North Korea. An estimated 30 to 70 pastors have been expelled from China in the past few months.
According to Christianity Today, there are about 500 officially registered South Korean missionaries in China, although some speculate that the actual number could be as high as 2,000. Many are drawn to the northeast due to the poverty in the region and its proximity to North Korea.
Some believe that the expulsions are due to the tightened restrictions on Christians, while others blame China's opposition to Seoul's plan to build an American missile shield.
South Korea and the U.S. maintain that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is intended at defending against a growing North Korean missile threat. But China expressed fears that it may be able to probe deep into its territory and undermine its security.
Due to the increasing tensions, some South Korean missions agencies have recalled their workers, and the country's foreign ministry has advised missions groups to use "extra caution."