Thursday, February 11, 2021

Dangerous Border Crossings: The Case of Cho Young-joo

South Korean missionary Cho Young-joo (in a blue striped polo shirt) led a mission trip in the summer of 2013 to provide education for children in Mongla, Myanmar. China accused Cho of organizing volunteers from China and South Korea to illegally cross the Yunnan-Myanmar border. Image credit: GoodNewsTV  

Cross-border evangelization involves unforeseeable risks. The risk is arguably grave in China, where foreign missionaries routinely face harassment and arbitrary detention. South Korean Christians and Chinese citizens of Korean descent (hereafter ethnic Koreans) are no strangers to arrests for assisting North Koreans who attempt the long journey to freedom and citizenship in the South.   

A judgment unearthed by Dui Hua revealed that Korean Christians in China en route to their overseas missions in Southeast Asia face similar risks. In May 2014, South Korean national Cho Young-joo (KR: 조영주; CH: 曹永周) was sentenced to seven years in prison for organizing illegal border crossings to Myanmar from Yunnan. 

While overland border crossings between Yunnan and Myanmar are only legally accessible to citizens from the two countries with valid exit permits, some areas are separated by rivers but crossable on foot in most other places. Informal Yunnan-Myanmar border crossings can be common, or were at the time of Cho’s conviction, in some areas. For this reason, the prosecution of some crossings and not others can be considered arbitrary or politically motivated applications of the law. 

The crime of organizing illegal border crossings, defined in Article 318 of the Criminal Law, has become the latest rallying point for critics of Beijing following the detention of twelve Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protesters who attempted to flee by boat to Taiwan in August 2020. On December 30, two of them received prison sentences of between two to three years in Yantian District, Shenzhen, for Article 318. The crime can lead to as many as seven years in prison and even longer if violence is involved.  

While some offenders feel compelled to flee lawsuits they believe to be politically motivated, Christians have fallen victim to the same crime for crossing the Chinese border to conduct charitable activities in another country. Cho led a group of Christians to provide education for impoverished children in Mongla, a Burmese city best known for casinos, prostitution, and markets for endangered wildlife with Chinese clientele.  

Good News Mission

Cho is from the South Korea-based Good News Mission (KR: 기쁜소식교회; CH: 好消息教会). The mission was founded by Ock Soo-park in 1976 and proclaims to have 170 churches in South Korea and 838 international churches. Due to doctrinal differences, mainstream South Korean Protestant denominations have called the mission “heretical.” The accusation stems from its allegedly objectionable conduct, such as deceptive recruiting and the exaltation of Ock

In China, there were few if any reports about its church members being subjected to coercive measures until Bitter Winter, an online magazine that focuses on religious liberty and human rights issues in China, reported a case of 26 people who were sentenced for “illegal business activity” in July 2020. They were accused of printing Good News Mission books. Among them, Xian Renguo (咸仁国), director of the Secretarial Department of the mission, received a prison sentence of 42 months in Jiangsu. 

There is evidence that the mission has gained some traction in China. Government gazettes have documented instances of “infiltration” from the Good News Mission in the northeast provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang, where the majority of two million ethnic Koreans are concentrated. Liaoning was among the first provinces to have banned the church as early as  2005. Public security in Inner Mongolia, Hunan, Guizhou, and Shaanxi have also filed “special cases” (专案) to monitor the church. The most recent mention by the government found in the 2016 Changsha Yearbook  states that an unknown number of members were taken to “education classes” for illegally proselytizing there. Reporting by Bitter Winter also revealed that the mission established a secretarial department in Guangzhou in 2009. 

Three Border Crossings

Jingkang School is a government-funded school founded in 2011 in Mongla, a township in Shan State Special Administrative Region 4, Myanmar. In 2013, Cho led volunteers from China and South Korea to cross the Yunnan-Myanmar border to provide schooling and humanitarian aid. Image credit: Information Website of the No.4 Special Administrative Region of Eastern Shan Information Website  

Prior to detention, Cho administered a website to recruit volunteers to provide schooling for children in Mongla, the capital of Myanmar’s Shan State Special Administrative Region 4 bordering China’s Menghai County in Yunnan. Jointly initiated by Jingkang School (景康学校) in Mongla, the mission was joined by South Koreans and Chinese nationals, including members of ethnic minority groups such as ethnic Koreans, Manchu, and Jingpo (景颇族, a predominantly Christian ethnic group in Yunnan).

The Daluo Port is the official crossing that connects Mongla to Yunnan’s Menghai County. Image credit: Google Map and 

The Daluo Port is the only official crossing that connects Mongla to Yunnan’s Menghai County. As with many other overland border crossings between Yunnan and Myanmar, the port is accessible only to citizens from the two countries with valid exit permits. Exit permits are also obtainable by licensed tour operators catering to casino clientele. However, as noted above, the Yunnan-Myanmar border is considered porous and crossable on foot in many places. Locals are known to eschew the process of applying for a pass in favor of informal crossings utilizing accessible entry points. A 2014 New York Times article noted that few locals “bother applying for a pass and instead sneak through, via motorbike or by climbing through large holes conveniently located on the border fence.”  

Cho was accused of organizing three illegal border crossings from Yunnan to Mongla, all of which were made in July 2013. Of the three border crossings, Cho admitted to having a leading role in the first one where he was physically present:

  1. In the summer of 2013, Cho was assisted by local churches in China to arrange for five South Korean students to meet him in Kunming, Yunnan’s provincial capital. From Kunming, they travelled to Jinghong, where they split into two groups. All but one student made their way to Mongla’s Jingkang School.

    Cho and his wife stayed with the one South Korean student who did not make it to Jingkang School. They were later alerted by Zhang Hongjun (张洪军), a Han missionary from Qiqihar, Heilongjiang Province, to evade Chinese police before crossing a river to Mongla. The trio was intercepted by Yunnan police upon their return to Kunming on July 25, 2013.

  2. Prior to Cho’s detainment, Burmese police apprehended a total of 31 people on July 21. They were sent back to Yunnan on the same day. According to the Chinese prosecutors, Cho instructed Wang Yingjie (王应杰) and Yang Yuanyuan (杨园园) to arrange a coach for the volunteers after they had arrived in Kunming. Wang travelled with them to the border township of Menglong, from where they took minivans and crossed the border to Myanmar via a secret route. This group appeared to have taken a detour in a bid to join Cho in Mongla to avoid unwanted attention from border police.
  3. Yang was responsible for collecting transportation fees from the volunteers and did not cross the Yunnan-Myanmar border. Yang, however, was detained separately on August 9, 2013.

  4. The third border crossing involved seven volunteers, all of whom managed to reach Mongla. Four of them were detained in Menghai County on July 28 after they had finished volunteering and returned to Yunnan on the same day.

Map showing the route (green) from Kunming to Jinghong, from where Cho intended to travel to Mongla. Source: Gaode Map 

Convictions & Harsh Sentences

Ten other defendants were also tried alongside Cho. The Jinghong City People’s Court sentenced three for “organizing illegal border crossings;” four for “transporting others to illegally cross the border;” and another four for “illegal border crossing.” All but Cho were Chinese nationals. 

Cho’s wife and the five volunteers from South Korea were not prosecuted. They were deported after paying a fine for violating the Exit and Entry Administration Law.  

Table 1: Individuals convicted of crimes related to illegal border crossings.
Source: Jinghong City People’s Court

The sentence handed down to Cho can be considered severe, even more so than many profit-oriented smugglers convicted of the same crime for pouring an illegal flow of labor into or out of China.

According to the 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016 released by the Supreme People’s Court, 7,264 individuals were convicted of Article 318 in the 18 years beginning in 1998. Of them, one in every five defendants received prison sentences over five years. A larger portion, 37 percent, received prison sentences not exceeding three years. 

Considered a lenient punishment, suspended sentences are quite common in Article 318 cases. One in every four defendants received suspended sentences from 1998-2016. Cho was not given leniency even though none of the 11 defendants had an intent to profit. It would be hard to argue that Cho’s humanitarian work in Mongla has inflicted any social harms in China or Myanmar, an important factor to consider when a court determines sentencing. Cho’s defense lawyer also asked the court, albeit in vain, to consider the ties of friendship between China and South Korea. 

A cropped image of the 29-page court judgment detailing the specifics of the three illegal border crossings organized by Cho. Image credit: China Judgements Online 

The 29-page judgment did not explain why Cho deserved a seven-year prison sentence; it only focused on Cho’s role as the principal offender who “led, plotted, and organized” more than 40 people to illegally cross the Yunnan-Myanmar border thrice. The court also found that Cho had known that crossing the Yunnan-Myanmar border without proper documentation would be an unlawful act. However, he only expected that the crossings, if found, would constitute an administrative violation, rather than a criminal offense. He appeared to have acted on his belief that Chinese authorities would turn a blind eye to people illicitly slipping through the border, as they often do with locals who commute to towns on the other side of the border to see relatives or conduct trade as part of their daily lives.

Cho’s case was investigated by guobao, China’s secret police force in charge of handling political dissidents, religious groups, and “subversive” activities. The case fulfilled the criteria for being an “important case” (pinyin: zhongda anjian, 重大案件), as defined in the notice issued by the Ministry of Public Security in 2000 which stipulates that one of the following conditions is met:

  1. organizing 20-49 people to illegally cross the border at one time; 
  2. organizing others to cross the border three to four times; 
  3. causing serious injuries to one to two persons during the crossing; 
  4. depriving of or restricting personal freedom of others; 
  5. using violence or coercion to resist law enforcement; 
  6. illegally making a profit of RMB50,000-200,000; 
  7. and other “serious circumstances.” 

Points 1 and 2 are relevant to Cho, making his case almost certainly a zhongda anjian

Cho served his prison sentence in Qingdao, Shandong, in closer geographical proximity to South Korea than Yunnan. His first sentence reduction was granted three years into his prison sentence in December 2016; another reduction was granted in 2018. Good News Daily (Good News Mission’s news portal) reported his return to South Korea on January 23, 2019 upon completion of his prison sentence. Other than that, his case did not appear to have garnered substantial coverage in mainstream news media in South Korea. 

The Chinese government likely considers Cho a case of foreign infiltration, a term typically associated with religious activities conducted by foreign missionaries inside China. His case suggested that foreigners proselytizing outside of China face hefty prison sentences.

A Risky Venture

Cho’s imprisonment was by no means an isolated incident. In March 2018, Reverend John Cao Sanqiang (曹三强) was sentenced to seven years in prison for the same charge of organizing illegal border crossings. Cao conducted charitable work in Myanmar’s Wa Region, subsumed under the northern special region of Shan State near the Yunnan-Myanmar border. In addition to providing schooling, Cao also organized a charity clinic to reduce child and infant mortality rates, offered drug rehabilitation, and conducted onsite visits to Wa families to educate them about the harms of drug abuse. On March 5, 2017, Cao was taken into custody by Chinese police at the border upon his return to Menglian County, Yunnan, from Myanmar.

Despite being a Chinese national, Cao is perceived by the Chinese government to have close US connections. Cao is a US permanent resident with links to China’s house church movement. His trial was concluded at the onset of the fraying US-China ties caused by the trade war. The Department of State has expressed “deep concerns” and urged that Cao be released on humanitarian grounds. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for his release from wrongful imprisonment in October 2019. 

China has a track record of hostage diplomacy by holding foreign nationals as bargaining chips on dubious charges, as in the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. However, political and economic problems between China and South Korea were irrelevant to Cho’s case. Cho was sentenced amid the warming ties between the two countries. Irritants did not occur until South Korea announced its approval of the US deployment of the THAAD missile system to counter the growing threats from North Korea. As China-South Korea relations turned sour in 2016, an increasing number of reports of missionaries being deported and visas refused have emerged.

There might be reasons not explicitly stated in the judgment that could explain Cho’s harsh prison sentence. In the early 2010s, official news media began reporting a surge of cross-border crimes in Southwest China. Of particular concern were cases of a political nature involving overseas religious forces complicit in organizing “Uyghurs splittists” to flee overseas through Yunnan and Guangxi. This led the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate to issue a joint response in 2012, in which they called on all cross-border crimes to be “handled in the strictest possible manner.” Public security was required to strengthen investigation and detection of cross-border crimes. Cho, a religious figure with close foreign connections, might just be an unfortunate victim as China began increasing scrutiny along the Yunnan-Myanmar border amid its campaign to ratchet up stability maintenance.

The case of Cho Young-joo is not well-documented in Chinese government sources beyond the 29-page court judgment published on China Judgements Online. We will likely be kept in the dark until more information about Cho’s case becomes publicly available. That said, it has become increasingly clear that cross-border evangelization is riskier than ever. In early 2020, China reportedly started erecting a 2000-kilometer reinforced fence along the Yunnan-Myanmar border. The move has been officially cast as an attempt to contain imported cases of COVID-19 from Myanmar

Some observers have alluded other motives to Beijing. The wall can be more than just a physical barrier; it has created new nodes of surveillance combined with the rollout of facial recognition technologies that can be used to monitor not only dissidents, but also ethnic minorities and missionaries, as well as to keep them from fleeing the country.