Aid projects straddling the border between China and North Korea may be in jeopardy with the detention of naturalised US citizen Peter Hahn on Tuesday. Philip Wen reports.
Chinese authorities have detained respected Korean-American Christian aid worker Peter Hahn on suspicion of embezzlement, amid a wider crackdown on aid groups along the North Korean border.
The 73-year-old naturalised US citizen, who has overseen a range of aid projects straddling the border between China and North Korea over the past two decades, was called in by authorities in Tumen, China for questioning on Tuesday and placed under detention after a six-hour interrogation. Two other staff members, including a South Korean national, have also been detained in recent weeks.
While yet to be formally charged, his lawyer Zhang Peihong said Mr Hahn had been informed he was being held on suspicion of embezzlement and using fraudulent invoices. Both serious allegations, Mr Zhang said, were “groundless” and “impossible to stand up”.
Supporters of Mr Hahn point out that he had used his life savings to help relocate from the United States and set up his NGOs, and say the allegations against him were likely politically motivated.
“We’ve known each other for 12 years,” an Australian pastor, whose church has donated toward Mr Hahn’s initiatives, told Fairfax Media. “Peter has always been an honest person.”
Mr Hahn’s projects and personal freedom have been under a cloud since July, when amid an apparent crackdown on Christian and other aid groups along the North Korean border, authorities raided his office confiscating his passport, computer, car and other documents.
The pastor met Mr Hahn in Tumen last week before his detention and said he appeared “emotionally calm and stable”, and was focused on how he could continue his aid work in North Korea.
Placed under surveillance since the raid, Mr Hahn’s bank accounts were frozen, crippling the finances of his initiatives in North Korea, which include fertiliser and food processing factories which employ hundreds, and a bakery which provides meals of soy milk and bread for orphanages.
“I feel that the Chinese government doesn’t want foreign NGOs working on North Korea any more,” Mr Hahn’s wife, Eunice, told Fairfax Media by telephone from Seoul, having fled there soon after the first police raid. “In the past, it just left us alone; but now it is cracking down.”
Humanitarian charities and aid workers operating along the border have typically done so at significant risk given the unpredictability of the North Korean regime and the suspicion with which China views the mostly foreign-funded NGOs active in the area.
Canadian couple Kevin and Julia Garratt remain in Chinese detention in the border city of Dandong, having been accused of stealing national security secrets.
South Korean missionaries working in China near the North Korean border have reported being forced out in recent months after having their visa renewals refused.
The crackdown is variously viewed as part of a broader campaign against Christianity, or consistent with a ramp up in official rhetoric against foreign influence seen as undermining Chinese interests.
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