China has expelled 32 South Korean Christian missionaries, a Korean government official said on Saturday (Feb 11), amid diplomatic tension between the two countries over the planned deployment of a US missile defence system in the South.
The 32 were based in China's north-eastern Yanji region near the border with North Korea, many of whom had worked there more than a decade, South Korean media have reported.
South Korea's foreign ministry said on Friday that it briefed Christian groups on the case of the missionaries, adding that they were expelled in January.
The ministry advised the groups on the importance of complying with the laws and customs of the areas where they work, it said.
In South Korea, China is widely believed to be retaliating against Seoul's plan to host the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system of the US military, against the threat of the missile attack from North Korea.
But there was no indication of a direct link between the expulsions and tension over Thaad, said the South Korean government official, who requested anonymity. "There was no official explanation from China," he said."There is no confirmation that it is related to Thaad."
China's Communist Party says it protects freedom of religion, but keeps a tight rein on religious activities and allows only officially recognised religious institutions.
The number of Korean missionaries working in China might top 1,000, South Korean media say. Most are in the north-east, and many help defectors flee North Korea and travel to third countries, including the South.
Thaad's radar is capable of penetrating Chinese territory. Beijing has objected to the planned deployment, saying it will destabilise the regional balance of security, threaten China's security and do nothing to ease tension on the Korean peninsula.
Many South Koreans believe Beijing is retaliating against the defence system, with measures against some companies and cancellations of performances by Korean artists.
On Wednesday, South Korea's Lotte Group said Chinese authorities had halted construction at a multi-billion dollar real estate project after a fire inspection.