Since 1993, Pastor Han Chung-ryeol, an ethnic Korean citizen of China, had operated a church with 300 members at the foot of Mount Changbai, which the Koreans call Mount Paektu, on the Chinese side of the border. NK News reports that Pastor Han was last seen leaving his church at 2:00 on Saturday afternoon. He was found on the side of the Mountain at 8:00 that evening, “with knife and axe wounds in his neck.” Someone murdered Pastor Han, and not without reason, “[a]ctivists and local journalists suspect he was assassinated by North Korean agents.” Several media reports and this memorial, by his friend the Rev. Eric Foley, report that Han had helped North Korean refugees.
Changbai borders North Korea. And in 1993, North Korea was gripped by famine. North Koreans flooded across the border, looking for food, clothing, money, anything. It was rumored along the border in North Korea that if you went to a building with a cross on top, they would help you there.
In Changbai, there was one building with a cross on top. That was Pastor Han’s church.
Pastor Han never sought to start a North Korea ministry any more than he sought to start a church in Changbai. He simply responded faithfully to whatever God gave him to do. So as North Koreans knocked on the door of his church, he gave them food, and clothing, and Christ. When North Koreans began to knock on the doors of the homes of people all over Changbai, Pastor Han trained ordinary people how to help North Koreans also.
There was a time when it was possible for Korean Chinese people to visit North Korea to see their relatives. Pastor Han’s wife did. She even went to jail in North Korea for evangelizing North Koreans. But providentially in the same jail cell with her was a fellow prisoner, a kotjebi, or North Korean orphan, whom she and Pastor Han had once helped in China. The kotjebi was wearing layers and layers and layers of clothing, because every time the kotjebi needed to buy something, off would come a layer of clothing as payment. So the kotjebi provided Pastor Han’s wife with enough clothing to stay warm in the cold prison cell, as a way of saying thanks.
What North Koreans always said about Pastor Han was that they could see his heart. That is far rarer in ministry than you might imagine, and it is especially rare in North Korea ministry. You can share food with North Korean people. You can share clothing. You can share the Gospel. You can give them lots of money and rice cookers. And you can throw big parties for them. But unless North Koreans can see your heart, unless the gospel is embodied in your life and not only your words or your business cards, they will never cross over the scary, shaky rope bridge over which we each of us must cross in order to move from the ideologies that enslave us, to enter the Kingdom of God.
Pastor Han must have known the risks he was taking. As early as 2000, North Korea kidnapped and murdered the Rev. Kim Dong-shik, a U.S. resident, for helping refugees. In 2009, the North’s Reconnaissance General Bureau sent hit teams to murder human rights activists in both China and South Korea. He was a brave man, and a good man. He gave everything, perhaps including his life, to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
So far, there is no direct evidence that North Korea was responsible for killing Pastor Han, although the suspicions of North Korea’s involvement go beyond mere speculation.
Han is believed to have been murdered by three North Korean agents who were dispatched to the Chinese northeastern province of Jilin right before the incident, Choi Sung-yong, the head of the group of families for South Koreans abducted by North Korea, said, quoting what he heard from North Korean defectors.
“The agents are known to have returned to their country,” Choi said. “The priest has long supported North Korean defectors. North Korea seems to judge that his church is being used as a hideout for such North Koreans.” [Yonhap]
An axe murder would be a departure from the RGB’s preferred method in recent years, which is to sneak up behind its targets and inject them with poison, specifically, neostigmine bromide. But of course, North Korea has murdered people with axes, too, notably Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett.
NK News quotes a fellow activist, who says Pastor Han also supported underground churches inside North Korea.
“Since last year, U.S. organizations have started funding him to establish underground churches in North Korea,” Pastor Kim Hee-tae, president of the missionary organization North Korea Human Rights Mission, told NK News.
The church started dispatching deacons into North Korea last year, Kim said.
“Some of them were arrested by North Korean authorities and some were missing. The North Korean State Political Security Department is likely to have learned Han’s role,” Kim added.
A similar incident happened three years ago, in which South Korean citizen pastor Kim Chang-hwan was killed by a poison needle in Dandong, China.
“He was about to infiltrate to North Korea with a fake Chinese passport to build underground churches,” Kim said. [NK News, Ha Young-Choi]
Unlike Kim Dong-shik or Kim Chang-hwan, Han was a Chinese citizen without ties of nationality to the U.S. or South Korea. Washington and Seoul could take the view that they have no basis to demand that China investigate Han’s murder and share its findings, but the murder of a humanitarian is reason for people of conscience all over the world to be concerned. After all, the U.S. often speaks out when China abducts or unjustly imprisons Chinese dissidents, and neither Seoul nor Washington owes North Korea any special deference.
If North Korea ordered the murder of Pastor Han, it would fit the legal definition of “international terrorism” in the U.S. criminal code. This has important policy implications here in the United States. The United States has repeatedly cited governments’ use of clandestine agents to murder their exiled citizens in third countries to support the designation of the responsible governments as state sponsors of terrorism. In the past, North Korea has targeted a U.S. resident and South Korean citizens for similar terrorist attacks. Finally, the South Korean government considers North Koreans, including the refugees Pastor Han had assisted, to be citizens of the Republic of Korea. That’s why U.S. and South Korean governments should ask China to share any evidence that North Korea was responsible for the murder of Pastor Han Chung-ryeol.
It’s also why they probably won’t.
President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.