Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A Chinese court is expected to reach a decision soon in the trial of a Korean-American missionary suspected of trying to help North Korean refugees flee their impoverished, communist homeland.
A foreign ministry spokesman said Tuesday that hearings in the missionary's trial were held in an intermediate court in Jilin -- the northeastern province bordering North Korea -- early this month.
Spokesman Liu Jianchao told a press conference that Choi John Daniel (also known as Joseph Choi) was "suspected of having committed the crimes of rape and organizing people to cross the border illegally.
"At the moment, the hearing of the case is still ongoing," he said. No further details were given.
Other campaigners working to help North Korean refugees Thursday called into question the validity of the rape charge, saying prosecutors probably fabricated it to add substance to their case against Choi.
One of them, Douglas Shin, said his personal knowledge of Choi, his firm Christian faith and his family background, made the sex crime charge highly unlikely.
Shin, a pastor who heads a California-based organization called Exodus 21, said Choi's trial was expected to end shortly.
He expressed the hope that the missionary, who is a U.S. citizen, may be expelled from China once the case is over.
Korean missionaries and other activists are running a number of clandestine projects to help desperate northerners defect, usually by way of China, whose border with North Korea is relatively easy to breach.
Once in China, the defectors eventually try to make their way to South Korea, via third countries like Mongolia, Laos or Thailand - or in some cases after seeking refuge in foreign diplomatic missions in Chinese cities.
High-profile incidents at embassies this year prompted a harsher response from Beijing - an ally of Pyongyang's - which says it is obliged to repatriate the refugees found living illegally on its territory.
Human rights campaigners say those who are forcibly returned face lengthy sentences in prison camps, or even death.
Last July another foreign missionary, South Korean Chun Ki-won, was convicted for helping a dozen North Koreans trying to cross the Chinese-Mongolian border on their way to freedom. He was fined and deported.
Shin said Choi is one of two missionaries now in Chinese custody. The other is a South Korean, also surnamed Choi.
According to Shin, the American Choi was running a small, informal shelter for North Korean children in a rural area near the Chinese-North Korean border before his arrest last May.
The arrangement, known as the "Little Angels' Home," catered to children who had been abandoned, orphaned or otherwise separated from their parents.
Choi had been tipped off about his imminent arrest, but decided to stay put rather than abandon the 14 children there at the time, Shin said.
Most of the children were rounded up, although Shin said it was unclear whether they had been sent back to North Korea or were still being held by China.
He said that, apart from the "usual charge" brought against Choi, he was also accused of statutory rape.
The charge was thought possibly to relate to one of the children, now 14, whom Choi had found near death in a city gutter around two years ago and taken in.
"He adopted her as his daughter and took her with him wherever he went," said Shin, adding that Chinese authorities could be using that situation to form the basis of the rape allegation.
Shin said he doubted very much that there was substance to the charge.
"John Daniel Choi is a very devout Christian. The background of his Christian education and his family background really doesn't allow this kind of Dr, Jekyll and Mr. Hyde kind of thing."
According to Shin, Choi went to the U.S. 20 years ago as a seminary student, and has been working as a missionary in China for the past six years.
Another refugee activist, South Korean C.K. Park, said Thursday he did not accept the allegations of rape, either.
Speaking from Seoul, he said it was usual for the Chinese authorities, "in order to cover up their real intentions, to come up with false charges.
"So at the moment we are not in a position to jump to any conclusions [about Choi.]"
Park said the other missionary under arrest, the Korean, had also initially been accused of "some sort of sexual scandal."
But when he was eventually indicted, the charges against him included nothing of that kind.
This gave "some indication" of the Chinese way of operating, he said, adding it was aimed at damaging "the respectable reputation of the victim."
Park said he did not believe the charges faced by Choi would have a negative impact on the underground network helping North Koreans to escape.
"Disgrace to him will have little effect on the humanitarian operation because most aid workers are working out of their belief and conscience, not reputation."
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing declined to comment on the case, citing privacy concerns.
But she confirmed that Choi has had regular visits by staff from the U.S. Consulate in Shenyang since May, the most recent one having taken place on Dec. 5.
Climate of fear
A new report by the UK-based charity, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), says North Koreans returned from China having had contact there with South Koreans or Christians are commonly executed.
Others are subjected to interrogation and harsh punishment, said the report, based on interviews with around 50 North Koreans in four countries.
Reports from other agencies earlier this year about coerced abortion and infanticide of pregnant women among the returnees were corroborated by the CSW interviewees.
CSW also described a climate of fear among North Koreans hiding in China.
" There has been a severe clampdown and large numbers of North Koreans have been repatriated," it said.
"Those helping North Koreans by providing shelter or assistance in leaving the country have also been targeted, with a number of foreign missionaries being detained and subjected to harsh treatment in China."
The charity said Beijing consistently refused to acknowledge the existence of refugees from North Korea, despite its obligations as a party to international refugee conventions.
U.S. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), who visited north-east China this week, called on Beijing Wednesday to allow senior U.N. officials to visit the area to assess whether the North Koreans should qualify for refugee status.
"China cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering, persecution and execution of the citizens of its neighbor," Brownback was quoted as saying at a press conference at the U.S. Embassy.
Until now, China has denied the U.N. permission to carry out an inquiry.
Desperate North Korean Defectors Seek New Life In South (June 11, 2002)
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